Super & Real
Jericho’s private jet touched down at Lambert St. Louis International Airport. He picked up his briefcase on the way out and a brand-new Ford Taurus was waiting for him. Normally, he’d drive Mercedes or BMW, but he didn’t want to risk damaging such nice cars in the worse parts of southern Illinois. The ghettos of East Saint Louis happened to be his first stop, and since the economy had left the town behind almost three-quarters of a century earlier, it had become a breeding ground of crime and squalor, and the fruit of abandonment would become obvious even a few miles out. Forget what the racists said about black people, it was basic math: when any chance to make money disappears from a community, caused by valid business decisions or not, the result is violence and crime.
“Good lord,” he whispered to himself. “This place is Walmart-ville.” Even having grown up not rich and having to make himself so, it never ceased to startle him how outside the city, any semblance of culture simply died. Forget city versus country, rural versus urban spoke more truth than any political map. The chief sources of jobs out here were part-time work no adult should have to do. Even as an objectivist, even as a supporter of conservative fiscal policies, it disturbed him how much adult value went to waste outside of the major cities.
He parked on the street corner outside an apartment building that had seen better days. Not a half block down the street, the half-remains of a ruined brick building lay undisturbed. People walked the streets looking half-suspicious and half-jealous of the white man in the expensive suit driving a new, clean, undamaged car. With several of his new powers active, Jericho himself felt little danger. His sense of unease, he had trained himself to overcome, somewhat like a soldier, forcing himself to stare down guns and knives. An elderly man sat in a chair near the entrance to the building. The door had a hole in it with decay around the edge of the hole. “Excuse me,” he said.
The elderly man looked up. “Careful,” the old man warned. “Lookin’ like that, you’re liable to get robbed.”
“Understandable,” Jericho replied. He brought the name to the front. “Do you know if Demarcus Edwardson is in?”
The man scratched his chin. “Maybe,” he replied. “What do you want?”
“You may not believe this,” the billionaire answered, “but I want to help him. I’ve heard some bad news lately.”
“Nothin’ but bad news around here,” the old man said. “If you ain’t here to hurt that poor boy and his momma, I guess they’re in.”
“Thank you.” Jericho nodded and walked forward.
“Hell, white boy like you never fired a gun or stuck someone with a knife in his whole life,” the man correctly guessed.
The truth was, Jericho could easily have identified the location. What he wanted was to establish himself as known to at least someone on-site to lessen the inevitable curiosity as to why he was there. Plus, no one could accuse him of sneaking around the world if he made his presence known. He mounted the stairs, ignoring the smell and damage to the walls, and found a certain door on the third floor. He knocked.
“Who is it and what do you want?” A black woman’s voice answered the door. It did not open.
“My name is Jericho Torvalds,” he said, standing back from the door. “I know a Demarcus Edwardson lives here and he has something that I want to give him a lot of money for.”
A chuckle echoed through the wood door. “That’s rich,” she said. “The asshole who gives bad financial advice on the evening news is standing outside my door and wants to give me money. Right.”
“Look at it this way, ma’am,” Jericho said, taking a breath and a pause. “You’re living in a shithole. I suppose both your son and you work, and your combined income is almost enough ninety-nine percent of the time. You’re one catastrophe away from homelessness, and in terms of escaping the cycle of crushing poverty, neither of you are going anywhere. What more have you got to lose?” No answer came for a long moment. “Besides, I’m not in possession of a weapon, and I know you’ve got a gun on you.”
After the last part, he heard an audible gun cock, and the door slid slowly open. She focused her sights rigidly on him. “I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but you’ve got exactly three minutes.” She walked backwards, gun and sights on him the whole time.
He stepped in, slowly to avoid raising the tension, and sat down in a loveseat across from her and the boy. There was a second gun sitting next to the boy on the sofa. “I’ll not need three minutes,” he said. “I’m here to copy your superpower, and in exchange, pay you a great deal of money. Honestly, with the amount of powers I’ve copied, I could easily have taken it by force and neither of you could stop me, but I don’t believe in that.” He exhaled and inhaled again. “Governments use force. Coercion is evil. Rational adults use negotiation and diplomacy in business transactions.”
“Look around you,” Demarcus said. “Look where we are. Why do us a favor?”
“I’m not doing you a favor,” Jericho countered. “I don’t do anyone any favors. I subscribe to Ayn Rand.” He noticed a lack of understanding. “Objectivism, plain and simple. Show any selflessness to someone else only if that person matters to you selfishly. Quite frankly, I don’t have a soft spot in my heart for you or anyone around you. I’m not going to give you an ounce of charity.”
The boy and his mother started to get it. “So, you’re…” She began.
“The boy has something I want very much,” he said. “I am willing to pay a pretty penny for it.”
“Why?” The boy said.
“Currency has value only because everybody on this Earth wants at least some of it,” Jericho explained. “If society were to collapse, paper money and precious metals would be worthless, no matter what the idiots trying to scam elderly people on late-night television infomercials say. Food, water and survival skill would become the new currency. The manager of a Wal-Mart with a working freezer and a fully loaded guns and ammunition department would be the new Jeff Bezos.”
A dawning look of understanding emerged on them. Jericho continued. “I am wealthy. I got to a place in life where I can fly in my own jet, eat at any restaurant, no matter how expensive, and have any gadget or trinket I want. I got there by figuring out the best ways imaginable to acquire that which others place tremendous value on.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “Superpowers are now real, I believe, based on now countless pieces of evidence. Therefore, I’m simply securing my place among the top one percent in that regard as well. Your power will help me advance my power wealth.”
“Alright,” Demarcus said. “What’s your terms?”
“Here’s my terms,” Jericho explained. “We shake hands. Your power is replicated. I gain a flawless copy. You don’t even have to lose your power, or have it weakened in any way. In exchange, I will set up a long-term investment in your name that will pay you a dividend of at least one hundred thousand dollars a year for the rest of your life, even taking inflation into account.”
Demarcus sat stunned. Jericho saw this and smiled. “No tricks?”
The boy was skeptical. It pleased the billionaire, as so many others hadn’t even so much as questioned what the hell was happening. He reached into his wallet. “Here’s where I want you to be,” he said, dropping it on the table between them. “Oh by the way, here’s a down payment to show you how serious I am.” He placed two thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills on the table. “For your rent as well as your car repairs. Consider it a bonus.”
The two sat in stunned silence. It was more than both of their wages for a month combined, before taxes, just sitting there in cold, hard cash. They looked at the man in the suit, and the business card to a law office, and watched as he walked away. “Didn’t you want to copy my power?” Demarcus said.
Jericho gave him a puzzled look. “The deal isn’t done until bound by contract,” he said. “That way, I can’t weasel my way out easily.”
As he walked out the door, he caught the tail end of whispered conversation, discussion over the degree of belief they had over the offer. He would give them the opportunity to take him up on his offer. Based on everything he’d done so far, he believed he’d gotten them to take him up on the offer. They wouldn’t need a second bit of prodding. Only a few had denied him, and even the most skeptical buckled when he came to show them actual money. These people were desperate enough that they couldn’t afford to be too skeptical. He got to his rental car, which thankfully, had not been vandalized, and started the motor. His next target was quite a drive from here, and he wished suddenly he had not been squeamish about his choice of car. The mid-range American car served acceptably, but if he had his expensive German car, the ride would be smoother. Still, as orchestral music played over Bluetooth, he took a sip from his bottled water and followed instructions towards Alton. After a good thirty minutes or so, of endless gas stations, mini marts, and fast food restaurants, not to mention the Targets and Walmarts, with very few places of culture in sight, he found his way to the small house in a subdivision behind a McDonalds.
He pulled the car up to the road beside the driveway, perpendicular. The lawn had been mowed not a few hours earlier, he could smell. Up two steps, he stood in front of the front door. He knocked twice. From the front door emerged a man about his age, hair freshly washed and a bit of stubble around his face. He could tell from the loose skin on the man’s neck and arms that he’d recently lost a great deal of weight. The man’s shirt and pants looked relatively new because they fit very well. He knew from people he’d met that sudden weight loss leaves one with clothes of various sizes too big.
The young man looked at him skeptically. He registered a strange sensation; this person somehow knew the billionaire had been coming. The guy didn’t look as surprised as he should have been. Jericho estimated that the news would have reported that he had been travelling all over the world, but even still, it concerned him that someone should have any degree of inside information.
“Let me guess,” Manny started, placing hands in pockets. “You’re this ‘Jericho Torvalds’ guy?”
“Yes,” Jericho replied, “and I’m guessing that means you know why I’m here?”
“Hmm, you know I have a power, and for some reason you’re here to…what, steal my abilities?”
The investor shook his head. This guy wasn’t very nervous. To his estimation, this guy must be at least partially activated already. “No, not steal,” Jericho corrected. “I want to copy your ability. You’re in to be paid a lot more money than whatever you’re making. You don’t even have to lose your power.”
The man looked a bit skeptical, but generally seemed to be accepting. “And you’re…what, assembling powers to be a hero?” he asked.
Jericho chuckled a bit. “No, nothing so grandiose. I’m just wanting to be well-protected and stocked with abilities when the new order of wealth in the world asserts itself.”
Manny looked oddly at the man after his last statement. “Come in, I guess.” He entered through the doorway, motioning behind him. Footsteps told him the rich man followed. “What do you mean, new order of wealth?” But he knew already. Or, at least he guessed he did.
“Simple,” the investor corrected. “Money is the main order of wealth because people accept it in some form everywhere. If society collapsed, food and water would be the new order of wealth. Someone might be financially poor, but if they have an incredible power, they’re quite wealthy in terms of power, because superpowers are going to make people valuable.”
They sat in separate loveseats in Manny’s living room. Jericho leaned forward, folding his hands together in his lap. “Give me your pitch, rich man,” Manny said.
“I’ll be blunt,” he said. “You let me shake your hand, I copy your ability, and I set up a long-term investment paying at least a hundred grand a year until you die. Basic enough?”
Manny leaned back in his chair. He could not afford to resist such an offer. It would remove him from his poverty, and even enable him to save lives without having to worry about money. And yet, this guy was exactly what bothered him. Here was a guy who had the power set to put a huge dent in world suffering and would not do such a thing. “I’m not going to bullshit you,” he told the billionaire. “I’m not in a position in my life where I can afford to outright reject you.” Jericho nodded in mutual understanding. “But you’re setting yourself up to have all the abilities, just so you can be the man with all the weapons. With all you’re going to be capable of, you’d be able to single-handedly save the world. And yet, all you’re worried about is you.”
Jericho let out a sigh that indicated he had heard such words before. “I have to say, Mister Voren,” he explained, “I’ve heard this kind of moral statement before. As a follower of Rand, I…” He saw the man roll his eyes. “What?”
Manny’s lip straightened out, and his eyes lowered to a skeptical, somewhat exasperated gaze. “I hope it’s no offense, but I can’t stand the writings of Ayn Rand.”
Rather than be offended, the billionaire gave a look of genuine interest. “Go on,” he prodded. “Tell me what you find disagreeable?”
“Ooh hoo,” Manny uttered, trying to avoid laughing. “Where do I begin? The fact that her characters are terribly characterized, either Mary Sue perfect, or Disney villain? Sometimes both at the same time? How everyone we’re supposed to side against is a blatant strawman? How her books contain hilarious mistakes?”
Jericho folded his hands together as he reclined. “Hmm,” he countered. “I didn’t get that reading of the text of Atlas Shrugged or Anthem at all.”
“I read Atlas Shrugged because it was supposed to be her magnum opus,” Manny shot back. “I was either in one of two moods: wanting to punch a hole in the wall angry or laughing my ass off at the terrible prose and characterization. It’s borderline unreadable.”
“Give me an example,” Jericho stated. He’d had debates about Atlas Shrugged before, and he looked forward to what this person had to say. Masters of literary intellect had fought back and forth over Rand’s longest work before. He’d listened to fiery debates over the Objectivist ideology. Maybe a common opinion would be what he needed. Or not. Maybe this man’s ordinary level of education would prove uninteresting. Still, he had to know.
“We’re told that main character Dagny Taggart is descended from Nat Taggart, who founded the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad without government assistance or government loans of any kind.”
Jericho felt stifled by the pause. Clearly there was a point he wasn’t getting. What was the problem? “And?” he asked.
“In the real world,” Manny explained, “the only way for national railroads to get the land they needed to build all the way to the coast was by eminent domain.” He shrugged. “You’re telling me this man was such a genius he managed to convince all these people to sell their land, and he bought land with no government help whatsoever? It’s ridiculous.”
Jericho leaned forward. “Even if I give you that,” he said, “that’s not a knock on the ideology behind the story.”
“If the foundation is rotten, the house will fall,” Manny countered. “This is supposed to be her best work. If the ideology is supposed to be presented at its finest here, this is a problem.”
“A bit of a nitpick,” the billionaire said, “but ok, I’ll grant that. It seems implausible. But surely that’s not the biggest problem.”
Manny took a thinking breath. “No,” he continued. “The core of her ‘great men make history’ idea of Objectivism is symbolized by John Galt. This is the biggest Mary Sue I’ve possibly ever read.” Jericho leaned forward. Manny took this as a sign to continue. “He straight-up invents a perpetual motion machine. Something that is physically impossible. So, his plan is to cause the government to collapse by getting all the best people with the best ideas to escape and hide away, and thus society can’t go on without them? Is that really believable?”
“Why not?” Jericho countered. “Look at what Henry Ford created. Not just the automobile, but the assembly line.”
Manny shot him a surprised look. “You’re really telling me you believe no one would be able to come up with that idea in his absence?”
“Maybe scientifically, someone else could come up with it.” Jericho changed gears. “But the core idea of Objectivism is that the government should not be allowed to take from someone who earns money and give to someone who doesn’t, and people should not do what is not in their rational self-interest.”
“That’s one of the problems with this world,” Manny fired off. “Eighty-six people have the combined wealth of the bottom three billion people.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
Manny let out a bellowing laugh at that. When he saw the rich man’s serious expression of genuine confusion, his laugh increased. “Yeah, I needed that,” he said.
“No,” Jericho argued. “I mean it. They earned it.”
“Oh, please,” Manny exclaimed. “Do you honestly believe that? Are you really that naïve?”
“I’m not dumb enough to believe every wealthy person worked hard,” Jericho clarified, “but someone earned that money they inherited. Isn’t it the right of a parent to bequeath his money to his children?”
“The average CEO makes almost three hundred times the pay of his average worker,” Manny said, trying to counter, “and can you honestly tell me you think the CEO works three hundred times harder?”
“Shouldn’t a successful rich person have the right to create a dynasty of wealth?”
Manny blinked hard. This man was not going to let him change to an easier target. “Not if it results in five or six generations of people who don’t have to contribute anything useful to society, and not if less than a hundred people can have more money than a huge chunk of the human race, no.”
Jericho leaned back in the chair. “Can’t say I’m surprised,” he stated. “I can absolutely understand why you feel the way you do, even if I disagree with you.” He collected his thoughts. “And to answer your question, the CEO may not work three hundred times as many hours as his ordinary worker, but his work is three hundred times as important.”
“Even IF that were true,” Manny shot back, “which I doubt, does that mean that it’s okay for him to pay them much less than they’re worth? Or to fail to share the benefits of extra profit with them? These are people who need to do more than mere survival. Also, how is he going to succeed without cogs in his machine?”
He wasn’t expecting such an erudite statement from the man. He dismissed it immediately, of course, but the man started to speak a bit clearer and more firmly. That impressed him. “They agreed to work for the pay the market set,” Jericho explained, “and he’s not obligated to share his extra wealth with them, no.”
“Wow,” Manny stated. The conversation hit him hard. The wind was knocked out of him. “That’s spectacularly shitty.”
“That’s the way it is,” Jericho fired back. “If everyone followed this ideology, there’d be none of these problems. People become too dependent on government assistance.”
Manny raised his eyebrows a moment. “Well, in any case, I think you’re dead wrong, and your ideology is terrible, no offense.”
Jericho reached in his pocket and removed a business card from his wallet. “Anyway, if you want to finalize our deal, go here.”
“Hold on,” Manny said. “Aren’t I allowed to counter with a stipulation?”
Jericho turned, awestruck. “Ok,” he said, barely able to comprehend. No one had even considered the possibility of a counter offer.
“Do you have a power in that growing collection of yours,” Manny asked, “that allows you to see things from someone else’s point of view?”
The billionaire searched his mental storage. In the large group of abilities that he’d already acquired, there was one that allowed him to insert himself directly into the memories of another person. He wondered where this was going, although he believed he knew. “Go on,” he said, curious.
“You can cut the money in half,” Manny suggested, “if you use that power to see the world through my eyes.”
Jericho’s eyes went a bit wide and his eyebrows raised. “Really,” he said. A small whistle escaped his mouth. “That’s not a very wise financial decision. I’ve got a huge incentive to take you up on it, and not much disincentive.” He stepped a bit closer. “Tell you what. Give me a strong disincentive that you think I’m not considering, and I’ll take you up on it, no discount needed.”
Manny didn’t have to hesitate. “You might end up changing your mind.”
“Not likely,” the rich man countered. “Although, it might end up giving me a better defense of my position.”
“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”
Jericho’s face didn’t change, but his internal smile was wide. “Tell me who said that, and I’ll take you up on it.” The expected answer was astronomer and famous skeptic Carl Sagan.
“P.C. Hodgell in ‘Seeker’s Mask.’ People often think Carl Sagan said it, but there’s no evidence.”
The billionaire said not a word. He simply stuck out his hand. Manny saw the grin emerge and shook the hand. He felt nothing out of the ordinary. He saw the rich man’s eyes go dim for a moment. When he came back a second later, he let go and shook his head a bit. “T…thank you,” Jericho stammered. The smile was fake enough to indicate something serious had transpired. “You’ll hear from my accountant shortly.”
“Nice doing business with you,” Manny said.
The billionaire made his way to his rental car and sat down. Firing the engine up, he ran the air conditioner and kept the radio silent. He sat in stunned silence, listening to the hiss of the fan and the sound of his own breathing. What he expected had been to experience the memories of the man named Manfred Voren. The experiences of the working poor would reveal the truth of his belief and perhaps challenge a detail or two of his ideology, but he would ultimately emerge unscathed. That wasn’t remotely what happened.
The power Jericho copied placed him literally inside the body of Manny Voren in memories reconstructed not by frail, malleable human psyche that changes the story every time a person thinks of it, but rather by supernatural power capable of accuracy.
Manfred Voren was born in early nineteen eighty-six in southern Illinois. His views came to be dominated by poverty. When he was just a boy, no older than twelve, his father had lost his job and spent the next eight or so months struggling to find work. His mother had to support the two of them with her nursing income, and it hadn’t stretched very far. Even when the father had found work, it hadn’t been the same. Jericho saw all these moments in great detail, as an observer in the moments of the past.
When Manny found work at the age of sixteen, he fought tooth and nail to perform his best and keep his chin up. His efforts often resulted in failure: his parents’ income would fall short and he would have to supplement their income. Two jobs apiece and his parents still couldn’t survive without occasional public assistance. This floored him; how could hard working adults, pushing themselves to their limits, need public aid to survive? He’d gotten used to seeing people fail. How could competent people fail like that?
As he sat in his rental car, listening to the sound of the air conditioner, he snapped out of his thoughts. Never mind, he thought. I’ve got powers to test out. He found the trigger in his mind for the newly-acquired ability from this person. He pressed the mental switch and activated the power.
He opened his eyes and stared in the mirror.
Nothing about his body looked different.
Reaching down, he took the cigarette lighter and burned himself with it. Then he activated a regeneration power he acquired. Damn it. Why isn’t it working?
He took a breath. He pictured a number of mental images and activated his power each time. After a good five minutes of trying, he gave up. He looked identical to how he’d looked before, with no new abilities. How could he see a trigger in his mind, activate it, and have nothing happen? He wanted to barge in the house again, and demand answers, but it occurred to him that Manny wouldn’t know any different than he did.
Using his primary ability, he probed the ability he’d acquired to see what the purpose of the original power was. It took a few minutes, analyzing with his full attention. With the assistance of the enhancing and increased intelligence abilities he copied, the answer came to him quickly. Manny had gained the ability to turn into the character he’d like to be most.
A thought creeped into Jericho’s mind. There’s no character I’d like to be, he realized. He let out a chuckle. They always told me I was a bit narcissistic.
“Oh well,” he thought out loud. Sure, he’d lost money on an ability he couldn’t use, but he’d copied so many recently that the losses weren’t that tragic. Already, he’d gotten abilities that would guarantee his long-term survival and were some of the most useful imaginable. He drove off, making another phone call to his accountant as he drove to the nearest branch of the gym he belonged to. It led him out of Wal-Mart Land and into the buildings and highways of Saint Louis.
He parked in the lot and made his way into the gym, showing his identification at the front desk. He’d bought a new set of gym clothes on the way to the building, and carried his bag and his new combination lock into the locker room. A quick search gave him access to a shower with a draw curtain he could use to hide away from the others.
“Here we go,” he muttered to himself, setting the towel on the plastic seat. He stared at his nakedness in the florescent light. His body had decent muscle tone and low body fat, but he’d never been an exercise nut who put serious effort into being a top athlete. Inside his mind, out of the collection of power triggers he had, he instantly located the ones for both regeneration and optimization. He’d copied the first from a child who had recently miraculously recovered from cancer as well as a broken leg. The mother had been ecstatic to find the child had powers and was not, in fact, possessed. The second was from a man who had been overweight his whole life, only to lose a hundred and fifty pounds of fat and gain seventy pounds of muscle since the lights shone overhead in the sky.
At first, little happened. He’d hoped the regeneration would speed up the optimization, but it seemed they counteracted each other.
Then his body lit up as if ablaze.
His teeth grit to avoid him shouting. The pain was incredible. It lasted a good thirty seconds, as he watched his body reconfigure into the icon of physical perfection. His breath came back to him in gulps, as he wiped sweat from his brow. His arms, while not ludicrously huge, had grown by several inches. His body fat had changed a bit, revealing tone like he’d never had before. His chest muscles were well-defined, and his legs were thick trunks of meat where before he looked spindly. Wow, he simply thought, turning the water on. He wet himself down, dried off, and dressed.
The new clothes he bought, he’d intended to be bigger and looser, just in case this happened. Now, they fit his more buff body more tightly. His flat stomach had a six-pack and his chest stuck out now.
The fastest treadmill maxed out at twenty miles per hour. His sprint barely taxed him, and he felt his legs fatigue very slowly. That’s what I call ‘optimization,’ he thought.
While running, he thought about Manfred Voren’s life experiences. As a fan of Ayn Rand’s work, he’d always fielded criticism of the literary work. Probably the most familiar arguments, typically from positions of perceived moral superiority, bothered him because these people honestly believed the rich had some outsized responsibility to society at large. What he knew from his education and his experiences in the stock market was that the rich fulfilled their role in society and enriched the masses simply by doing what made them rich in the first place. However, having inserted himself into the memories of the young man put him in shoes of another person as much as anyone could possibly be. He got to experience what the man had been through.
The mother had a marketable skill in demand. The father was the same way; he was a welder. How could it possibly be that they needed public assistance? The memories he’d experienced answered his question as soon as he had it. The economy had basically ceased to exist in the eighties when the companies that ran the factories that hired almost everyone in the surrounding communities outsourced to China. Furthermore, he saw other damning things. Multiple families only survived because they often supported each other. The place he referred to as Wal-Mart Land only turned into that once the economy that made people able to life a middle-class life disappeared. There was a time where most of the people Manfred grew up with didn’t have to subsist on incomes from retail and fast food. Manfred’s own memories took a proverbial sledgehammer to everything Jericho believed.
The worst part of all was he believed he’d grown up middle-class and not rich. Sure, he became a billionaire in his early twenties, but through the lens of Manfred’s own memories he saw just how rich he’d been. His mother had been a University professor on an income that was fantastic by the standards he now saw. He’d grown up in a gated community in a five-bedroom house his mother had paid off by the time he was eight years old. Even though he held his grandfather in contempt for disinheriting Jericho’s mother and dooming him to have to struggle, he now saw his mother had such a huge advantage that transferred to him. She’d benefitted from the most impressive college education money could buy and was able to parlay connections made with her father’s name into a teaching job at a prestigious university and he suddenly realized just how many of his accomplishments were built on a name he thought he’d thrown away.
What did he believe? He didn’t know anymore. All he knew was that he would have to base his decisions on more than just one person’s memory. Coming to a decision he cleaned himself off and got dressed. As of now he had more information to gather.
Using several new powers in conjunction with each other, Jericho located several powered individuals he hadn’t managed to speak to in the past few days. As his repertoire changed with each new power gained, he found the synergies between them a fascinating learning experience. The St. Louis area had some surprisingly good restaurants, he noticed, and the flexing of his financial muscle got him a private dining room. He could dine in peace and focus his abilities. On the way in, he experienced the memories of several members of the wait and cooking staff. The degree to which his experience differed from the average person bothered him. Still, he felt determined to get over it and get on with his life. He wasn’t going to radically upend his behavior based solely on this new information.
Now he had the ability to know the names of the targets that appeared on his radar ability. A Reverend Jack Hurst had recently developed an ability, and he would have to fly to Oklahoma to get this one. There were several closer targets he could get, but given his experience with religious people, he wanted this one to be over as soon as possible. The afternoon sun still hung above the horizon, but the events since the lights had weighed on his mind and he wanted to relax and process his thoughts. After paying his bill, he drove his rental car to the nearest hotel and checked into their first available suite.
His suitcase dropped by the computer desk. He’d worry about the stock market later. Despite making his enormous fortune from it, he now knew about a superior market. This market, he knew, didn’t have very many competitors in it, so he had a true first mover advantage. These thoughts excited and worried him. Dozens of abilities had become part of him and he had more to get. A particular skill that he prided himself on was his knack for finding use for things. A lesser mind might not find a use for manipulating insect carapaces, but he could imagine several. So his goal was to grab whatever ability proved available, and worry about use later.
His thoughts kept drifting back to the experience of living the young man’s memories. Just having access to another person’s life experience radically changed his perception. Even though it made him think about things in a way he’d never expected, he believed the struggle between his prior beliefs and the views of the other person would prove beneficial in the long term.
What other experiences could he add to his mind? This thought raced around. The harrowing nature of living the memories of another person taxed him. This wasn’t receiving a summary, he got inserted into the person’s life. Years of their life passed in the instant of real time it took to make contact, and he had to live each long day. However, this provided him an experience like none other. Who else, besides the person he got this power from, could say they literally lived another person’s life?
He found his way back to his hotel suite and checked the time on his cell phone. His office should still be open. A phone call later and his secretary picked up on the first ring. “Mr. Torvalds?” she said.
“Starting tomorrow, I’m doubling your pay,” he said. “Anyway, check my schedule. You know that one black activist who kept slandering me on CNN? Do you think you can get in touch with her and see if she’d be willing to meet with me to discuss civil rights?”
An uncomfortable pause followed. “Sir,” the secretary said, “she left her card as a token gesture. I don’t think she actually wanted to meet with you. If you want, though, I’ll certainly try to call.”
“You know what?” he interrupted. “I think it’ll mean more if I call her. What’s the number?” Another pause of significant length happened. Then the secretary read him the number. “Alright, I’ll call her. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, sir.”
He hung up and dialed.
“Sharon Francis,” the husky female voice replied.
“Yes,” he began, “Mrs. Francis? This is Jericho Torvalds…”
“Uh-huh,” she interrupted. “This is a surprise. After the comments you made about Black Lives Matter on Fox, I didn’t expect you to call.”
“Look,” he cut in, “I was hasty and I over-generalized. I think my position will be better if I sit down and actually hash it out with you.”
He waited for her laughter to die down. “Alright,” she said, “I’ll give you this: we sit down and talk, and I get to record the whole thing on audio. You can’t take back anything you say.”
“Absolutely,” he agreed. She audibly gasped. Apparently, she hadn’t expected him to agree to those terms. “Where are you? I’ll meet you somewhere.”
“I’m having a sit-down interview in my New York apartment with Anderson Cooper at ten o’clock tomorrow morning,” she said.
“How about the Waldorf Astoria at two p.m.?” He offered. “I’ll pay for any food or drink you want.”
“You’re serious about talking to me about black issues and civil rights?” Her tone bit him.
He put on a smile and brightened his tone. “You can film the fucking ordeal if you want,” he offered. “I just want a new perspective.”
“You know what?” she said. “You’re on. I am going to hit you with some hard questions. You are going to answer for the shit you’ve said.”
“No problem,” he said, verbally leaning into it. He hung up. He made a few phone calls and got the jet gassed up and ready for flight and booked a room at the Waldorf in New York along with a conference room and even paid extra for food service to it. Once the hotel heard his voice and confirmed his credit card, they were more than happy to be accommodating. To hell with it, he thought. His power collecting could wait. After all, he had quite a collection already.
A thought passed through: could he speed up the relevant sections and get just the important parts of a person’s life? There seemed only one way to find out. He teleported to behind a dumpster in the alleyway and walked out onto the street. Casual clothes had been the choice so as not to create too much fuss. Business formal could be saved for making deals.
The first target to attract attention came into view. A shapely woman in what was clearly an evening dinner dress underneath the pea coat. In his collection of triggers in his head, he activated the ones for heightened awareness and perception and combined it with the empathic experience power. Stealthily his hand grazed hers as he strolled.
Her life story, complete with tragedy and triumph, seemed to flash by. Some twenty-six years seemed to take only eight months of experiencing instead of real-time. As he returned to his own body, only microseconds having passed in actual time, he did his best to not make her think something wrong. If he acted out his shock and surprise, she’d have thought him a pervert who got off on brushing up against women on the street.
She’d been in an abusive relationship with a guy who seemed almost clueless as to the effect he had on her. It almost bothered him as much as willful abusers. Based on what she knew, at this point in the evening, he’d be at their apartment watching television. He found their residence with his teleportation’s radar sense and appeared behind the couch. At times like this, he thanked the ability for being silent.
I hope this works, he thought. He held his palm outstretched behind the man’s head and activated a mental projection power to combine with the empathic one and willed the experience of the woman into her boyfriend’s mind.
“What the hell?” The boyfriend shouted, almost shooting forward. Jericho turned invisible and inaudible, backing up and watching. The man turned the television off and sat there in stunned silence for a solid minute. Tears actually began flowing from the man’s eyes. “Oh…my God…” Jericho left when he saw that the woman’s memories got the point across. He teleported back to his hotel room.
A feeling of positivity swept over Jericho unlike anything he’d felt before. It perplexed him. Before, every logical center in his brain told him that doing things for strangers for no benefit went beyond pointless into actual harm being done. By being altruistic to others, one deprived them of their ability to be self-reliant.
A chuckle escaped his mouth and he paused and laughed mentally at the absurdity of it. How could he be so clueless? It didn’t require one to become a hippie to help others. “Christ,” he muttered to himself. He couldn’t believe how rigid his style of thinking had been. Some people truly were being helped to the point of losing their self-reliance, but none of that justified making an iron-clad rule as rigid as he used to believe from Ayn Rand. Did he find her ideas completely devoid of value? He didn’t know. But it meant the real world resisted being put into such tiny boxes as the political and philosophical talking heads seemed dead-set on doing.
After that, he took a shower and went to sleep. Sleeping took up a lot less time since he could use one of his acquired powers to regenerate his brain and need only a tenth as much.
An hour later, he woke up, rested and ready. The clock on the wall read ten thirty. He made his bed and walked over to his laptop on the work desk. Placing his hand on the keyboard, he activated a technopathic ability. Being able to do late-night stock trading was much easier when one could mentally project into technology.
Manny woke up and called in to the agency he worked for and quit his job. On the way back from the day’s events, he would stop by and turn in his badge. He still had plenty of money from his gambling winnings, and he would get more from that billionaire, assuming of course, that the man kept his word. He showered, brushed his teeth, and after drying off, put on the new thin clothes he’d bought from the local Target. Being able to use his female self to lose weight rapidly had served him well, although he would probably have to get his license set straight the next time he got it renewed. Placing his wallet and cell into the purse he’d bought, he shifted into Jennifer Black. The clothes her male self wore went with him. She changed into her usual heroics costume and put a spare set of clothes into the purse. The normal outfit she wore into action consisted of two t-shirts on top of each other, two layers of yoga pants, thermal socks and cheap rain boots. It had been carefully designed to be inexpensive and replaceable. Sure, she could channel her energy through it and the material became water and fireproof, as well as bulletproof, but it never hurt to be careful. Honestly, what blew her mind was that the bra she wore cost almost five times as much as the outfit without it. The shirts, pants, and cheap rubber boots came up to just a hair under fifty dollars. Bras that came in her bust size cost her over two hundred dollars for a very plain looking undergarment. She would make sure to get more money and buy plenty of replacements.
She left the house, locking the front door. She made it to the car and reached into the purse for the key.
A car approached from the entrance to the subdivision. Jennifer swore. Damn it, Annie, she thought, why the hell’d you have to tell Ed?
She activated one of her speed powers and time seemed to freeze. Activating flight, she took off into the sky. High above the stratosphere, almost half the globe could be seen. Enhanced vision showed her huge sections of land up close. An explosion at a factory in Mexico had set much of a nearby small village on fire. Using both speed powers in tandem, she flew to the site in seconds. She zoomed through the wreckage, pulling out injured survivors. As she touched them, her power flowed through them, allowing her to grab them at hypersonic velocities without destroying them on contact. It took her the better part of a minute to zoom through all the buildings, grabbing those in harm’s way. After that, she found several fire engines still on their way and brought them faster than they would have arrived on their own.
She flew back up to the sky and responded to several car accidents in several states. After that she looked for-and found-a few dozen cases of hikers in the wilderness stranded in places. It might have seemed like small potatoes to someone else, but being able to help anyone meant a lot to her. Her heightened intelligence and senses meant she could scan hundreds of square kilometers of ground with a single glance. Police outside of a major drug den in Baltimore were taking gunfire. She disarmed the gang and fled, depositing the weapons safely outside the building. No one saw her coming or going.
Before returning to the sky to look, she stopped at a local library and checked the internet for any events that might be big news. There were several politicians giving speeches and she stopped by each one. It would be a bust, she realized. No disgruntled voters carried guns or bombs into the event for her to respond to. She would have to wait for the big chance that Davis Wilson told her about. The last one, a Democrat by the name of Jan Dunsmith, had appeared at a fair in his home state of California, and as she scanned the crowd, no one posed a threat. This was a bust.
A gunshot rang out. The bullet smashed against her hand three inches from the representative’s face. She saw the gunman’s face and before he had a chance to fire off a second shot, she had the gun in pieces at her feet. “What the…?” The man cried out, looking at his hand where the weapon had vanished from. He looked up and saw a tall redhead standing in front of his target.
The frightened crowd parted around the man and he took off running. The next thing he knew, he had disappeared from the crowd and was seated on the stage, facing the cameras.
Jennifer had made a deliberate show of the event, capturing the man and leaving him on the stage ndfor everyone to see. The guards quickly approached the congressman and shielded him from harm. Officers rushed the stage and surrounded the dazed gunman. “Are you ok?” she asked the congressman.
He seemed dazed. “I’m…” He struggled for words. “I’m alright.” He blinked. “I’m sorry, thank you for saving my life! You are…?”
“Jennifer Black,” she introduced. “I’m glad I could be here to save your life.”
The look on Jan Dunsmith’s face told of his recognizing her. “Yeah!” he exclaimed. “I remember you! You saved those fifty-nine people from the wildfires downstate!”
“I’m always pleased to help,” she said, shaking his hand.
“Tell you what,” he said. “If there’s anything you need, just stop by my office and I’ll be happy to help you out.” He produced a business card.
“I’ll be in,” she said, placing the card in her pocket. She gave a pleasing smile and flew off, deliberately not activating one of her speed powers, enabling them to see her leave. With her goal of obtaining all the official paperwork to live, and just as importantly, do business, as her powered female self, she’d just accomplished her first major goal. There wasn’t anything wrong with being Manny, she just preferred to be in the form with powers.
She couldn’t believe her luck. There had been a major incident like Davis had said. She was able to respond to it almost immediately. The morbidity of it hit her almost as soon as the thought entered her mind. Politics in America had become so heated, the climate so polarized, that she was able to be at a would-be assassination within the first five political rallies she attended. The thought bothered her. In seconds she returned to her house. There were two separate cars waiting there. She recognized all three people at once. “Damn it,” she swore under her breath.
“Jennifer, look,” Ed said. “We’re not trying to intrude. It’s just that…”
She folded her arms. “What, Ed?” she said, impatiently. She turned to Annie. “I thought we were on the verge of becoming friends!” She glanced over at John and chose not to mention him. “You could have called. I’m busy saving lives and trying to figure all this out. These powers are only a couple weeks old to me.” At the end of her diatribe, her anger came crashing down as she saw the frightened expression on their faces.
John swallowed. Even considering his weight problem, his sweating seemed excessive for the mild weather. “L…look,” he stammered. “We’re…it’s just that we’re concerned about our friend Manny.”
One of her eyebrows raised. “Concerned about…” Her eyes went wide as she realized their implication. She used her vision power and saw that Ed’s gun was in the cargo pocket of his shorts. “Oh my God, you’re seriously worried that I…” She hastily looked around. No one was within shouting distance who could make out specific words. Still, she lowered her voice. “You’re seriously worried that I’m threatening him!”
“You have to admit,” Annie countered. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Manny might not be a bad person, or even bad looking, but how could he conceivably be with someone like you? You’re way out of his league.”
Jennifer laughed. “Wow,” she said, folding her arms again and giving a stern glare. “I thought men could be sexist.” She laughed again. “Let’s go in the house and I’ll show you what’s going on.” She saw the apprehension. The hand closest to Ed’s cargo pocket inched closer. “Come on. If that’s what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have let you approach me.”
They followed her up the concrete steps and onto the porch. She looked around and saw no one staring and opened the front door. Each person took their shoes off and took seats on the couch and the loveseat next to it. “Alright, what’s the secret?” Ed asked.
Jennifer waved her arms in a what-have-you motion. “What the hell,” she uttered. Activating the trigger in the opposite direction, her body and clothes transformed before their very eyes. In under ten seconds, Manny Voren stood before them. Annie almost collapsed in shock. John clutched his chest and almost fell backwards. Ed simply stared wide-eyed in disbelief. “Ta-da,” Manny shrugged and gestured to his body.
“I…um…that…uh…” John tried to say.
Annie took in the sight. This young man had a skinny frame, but the same slightly curly hair and pale skin proved it was Manny. “You’re…wow…” she simply uttered.
“Hold on,” Ed stated. “You are Jennifer? How does that work?”
John composed himself slightly. “I…stop a moment,” he said, forcing his will to gather. “That red-haired woman, is that Capacitor from the Furious Thunder series?”
Ed turned to John, then flashed his glance back at Manny, and then back to John. “Wait…what?”
“Wait a minute!”
They all stopped and sat quietly at Manny’s sudden outburst. He blinked a few times and wiped his eyes. “Geez,” he uttered. “This is why I kept it a secret. I love you guys, but Christ you’re a bunch of leaky pipes when it comes to secrets.” He flipped the trigger back and his clothes and body vanished to be replaced by Jennifer in her outfit once again. “This,” she continued, “is what happened. The Lights or whatever the hell they’re calling it happened and suddenly, I discover I can turn into a fictional character.” Ed’s mouth opened to begin a question. “Yes?”
“Aren’t,” Ed asked, “her breasts smaller in the comic?”
Annie looked at him and prepared to smack him.
“They would be,” Jennifer said, “if I ate nothing. She can feed off her energy itself. Unfortunately, I like food. Ok? Good thing her metabolism is post-human.” She gestured at her chest. “But, good lord bras are expensive at this size. I’m almost tempted to stop eating in this form just to get back to normal size.” She let out a sarcastic chuckle. “At least that would do something for the unwanted touching from other people.” She huffed. “Okay, any relevant questions?”
“Can you have powers in your male form?” Annie asked.
“If I want to experience gender dysphoria, yes.” They looked somewhat confused. “Powers seem to come from my mind. Changing just the brain gives me powers in either form. But my female brain is a woman and my male brain is a guy. Got it?”
“So,” John added, “what about the fact that you don’t have paperwork as Jennifer?”
“Working on it,” Jennifer shot back.
“This is incredible,” Ed said, leaning forward. “The scientific implications of this blow my fucking mind.”
“Believe me,” Jennifer said, “I thought I was going fucking crazy. If scientists want to study my body without hurting me, I’m all for it.”
“Just a second,” John interrupted. “Jennifer Black? I thought the character’s name was Michelle Delanter?”
Jennifer shot him a look. “If you turned into Clark Kent would you go on CNN and say to the world, ‘Hey, my name is Clark Kent?’”
John pondered this a moment. “Wow!” he gasped, pointing for effect. “Smart!”
Annie looked at the combination of the faded orange t-shirt combined with the dark grey yoga pants and five-dollar generic rain boots. “What kind of superhero costume is that?”
Jennifer put hands on hips. “Well, excuse me for not having the tailoring skills of Yaya Han,” she chided.
“Who?” Annie asked.
“Famous pro cosplayer,” John said. Annie nodded, not knowing anything about it.
Jennifer gestured at the bewildered friends. “Any more questions?”
“A ton,” Ed answered, “but something tells me we shouldn’t.”
“Thank you,” Jennifer complimented. She let out a long sigh. “Criminy, what am I going to do with you guys?”
“What do you mean?” Ed asked.
She waved her arms at them in an indicating gesture. “You guys!” she exclaimed. “You know about it! Now what?”
John piped up at this barb. “Hey, look at the comics,” he advised. “Doesn’t the hero lying to his friends and family usually turn out bad?”
Jennifer pondered this. At first it seemed so simple, but the more she thought about it, the more she was right. If the enemies knew about it and her friends didn’t, she would be endangering them for the sake of her privacy. But a counterargument came up just as quickly. “Wait, but won’t that mean you’re in on it, and you’ll have to lie?” she argued. “After all, everybody can’t know who I really am.”
This seemed to stump them. “Look,” Annie said, chiming in. “There’s got to be a safe point where some people have the right to know and some people don’t. You’ve been hanging around with us since before high school.”
Jennifer nodded and shrugged. “That is a good point,” she agreed. “Anyway, now that this ordeal is over, what did you want to do?”
The three looked around. “What do you mean?” Annie asked.
Jennifer gestured at them. “You’re here, after all. Might as well do something.”
Ed looked like he wanted to say something, but John interrupted him. “We want to see you use your powers!”
Jennifer rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that the most cliché thing there is?”
“We have to know what we’re dealing with,” Annie said. “I guess it makes sense.”
Jennifer sighed again. “You know what? Fine. I guess we have to do this shit at some point,” she conceded. She thought of a destination where she could have a lower chance of being spotted. “You know the park outside of Belleville?”
The three debated amongst themselves. “You mean the big one?”
“Yeah,” Jennifer agreed. “Not the small one in town.” They seemed to understand and headed out the door. Hastily, she changed into a more casual outfit of jeans, a short-sleeved black shirt, and a thin dark brown jacket. She grabbed her purse and headed out the door. After locking the door, she activated both speed powers and ran, following the highways and sidewalks. She covered the distance of almost thirty-five miles in under a minute. Once there, she deactivated one of the speed abilities and walked around the park with everything frozen around her, checking out who was there and in what direction they were looking at. She made her way into the women’s bathroom and sat in an empty stall, shutting the door. Then she deactivated the last speed power and exited the bathroom, walking out into the park with everything moving normally. She went on a leisurely stroll while she waited for her friends to drive there. Taking in the scenery with her heightened senses proved to be a real treat. Colors no other person could see hit her eyes. She hadn’t stopped to appreciate the finer details of her newfound powers, but she found she could hear the rumblings of the ground beneath her, frequencies no human ears could register. If she focused on her eyes, she could see infrared and ultraviolet, although not with much ease.
After more than a half hour, the three cars entered through the brick and iron gate at the front and parked in the medium-sized of the three parking lots and she picked up her walking pace to greet them.
“Let me guess,” Ed said, stepping out of the car. “You ran?”
Jennifer shrugged. “Why not? Fastest way of getting here,” she said.
“So,” Annie replied, “show us what you’ve got!”
Jennifer looked around and judged the safest place in the park to go to. “Get close, like, skin to skin,” she advised. They huddled together. “Alright, hold each other tight. I’ve got to be able to pick all of you up at once. Nobody let go.”
They all grabbed each other by the waists, tightening their grip. She grabbed as many of them as possible, holding them like an oversized barrel. With a slight heave, she had the lot of them in one go. An instant later, they were more than a half mile away on the opposite side of the park. She set them down gently. They stepped back, stumbling over each other. “Woah,” John said. From everyone’s point of view except Jennifer’s, they were huddled together in the parking lot, surrounded by a bunch of leaves and a brisk wind, and then, they vanished and were in the forested area near the edge of the park. “Super speed! I like it!”
“Wait,” Ed said. “I might not be the geek you are, but I thought there were physics problems with super speed.”
“There should be,” Jennifer said. “I should be running into bugs, and if I’m going fast enough, causing nuclear fusion by running into particles. I don’t know the details.”
John shook his head. “And the strength thing,” he noticed.
“Right,” Jennifer agreed. “Like lifting a watermelon with the tip of a safety pin. I should be punching right through any object with a big surface area because my hand is a small surface area.”
Annie and Ed looked at each other. “So, most movies and comics just ignore that!” Ed said.
“Wow, never even thought of that,” Annie replied. “Makes sense, though, it’s like a knife cutting a sandwich.”
“I can’t wait for science to figure out how this works, “Jennifer explained, “think of what mankind will be able to do once we know how this works.”
“How do you know science will be able to figure this out?” John asked, folding his arms.
“This isn’t chaos,” Jennifer countered. “You buy a car because you know if you turn the key, it starts the car. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a car. If it was truly paranormal, I wouldn’t be able to predict how to make it work.”
Annie pounded her fist into her open palm. “I get it!” she said. “It’s a part of nature, therefore, it has rules!”
“Even magic has rules.” Jennifer walked around, surveying the surrounding material. She picked up a jagged stone, roughly the size of a football, and crushed it in her hands, shaking the pebbles and powder out of her grasp. “So, what do you want to know?”
Ed laughed. “Come on,” he said, “Give us a show!”
“Alright,” she said. A quick glance around with her senses showed her no one could see her. She flew up into the air, grabbed a log from the ground, about five feet long and two feet wide, chucked it into the air, and flew through the center, splitting it in half. She focused her hands on each half, and a burst of light shot out of each one, incinerating the wood.
Each one stood clapping. “I don’t believe this!” John said. “It’s just unbelievable!”
“I’ve been doing everything I can,” Jennifer said. “I’ve been saving lives. But we all know what happens next.”
Ed cocked his head in confusion. “What happens next?”
John blinked, then his jaw almost went slack. “Oh my god.”
Jennifer nodded. “Right,” she said. “The villains always show up when the heroes do.”