- Every year, a randomly chosen person on Earth is struck by lightning and gains superpowers.
- Each new superhuman is twice as powerful as the previous one.
- This has been going on for ten years.
Extremes of temperature don't hurt me as much as they would a normal human being, but the sky over the Arctic is – in my estimation – even colder than space itself, so I'm wearing the one thing you never really see superheroes wearing: heavy layers of cold-weather gear and a furry hood. Wind chill, you see. No wind chill in space. Just nothingness. Space is unpleasantly numb, like dental anaesthetic, but that's all. That and asphyxiation. Whereas proper air, proper wind, that'll bite you to the bone in seconds.
I am a superhero, in certain senses. Scientifically speaking, I am impossible. It is absolutely physically impossible to do the things I can do. A man can't fly. It violates several somewhat fundamental physical laws. But I eat normally, I drink normally, I look like a regular person and I can apply huge, apparently reactionless forces to any part of my skeletal structure, pulling kinetic energy and momentum out of – again, this is a scientific term – "thin air", giving me superhuman speed and strength and, as I say, the ability to fly. I seem to have superhuman resilience to physical injury, which is kind of a given, if you have superhuman strength, otherwise you break every bone in your arm the first time you try to punch a car out of the air or something, and when I concentrate properly my perceptions and reactions increase correspondingly in speed, which means I can actually consciously keep up with what's happening around me at those speeds. No super-sight; I was actually shortsighted enough to need glasses until I agreed to the laser surgery. No super-hearing or telepathy or plasma blasts either. Pity.
I'm the wrong side of thirty years old, but I was what they're calling Born with a capital B almost precisely one year ago.
"Feel anything yet?"
"Not a thing... guy in my ear. What's your name?"
"Uh, 'Control' is fine."
"Well, whatever suits you."
"Incursion is expected to become detectable in the next ten seconds. Stand by."
"I am standing by," I say back into the heavy satellite radio handset, and increase my rate of ascent. It gets cooler briefly, but once I reach cloud layers it actually does get rather warmer. Sunlight. Sunburn, if I stay too long. I can hold my breath for what seems like half an hour up here.
I near the edge of the atmosphere and perform the mental equivalent of licking my finger and testing the wind. And there's the pulse, like a sunrise - a warm sort of glow on the horizon, a familiar and somehow attractive flavour of power source, announcing its presence. I take that direction and start accelerating, nose-first, arms by my sides. Humans aren't naturally very aerodynamic but by staying way outside the thickest atmosphere I can get astonishing rates of acceleration. My top speed is unknown.
"They've got it. Let's move, people."
I discard the heavy weather gear as air friction increases. You learn a lot of geography in this "profession" but I still don't recognise the precise mountains I drop my coat over. In my ear, somebody shouts a bearing. Somebody else shouts another one - Arika's, coming in from the Pacific. Both these people are watching our blips move across the Earth's surface and projecting our paths forward to the point where they converge. They can't detect the incursion directly and this stupid sixth sense of ours is another one of those things that defies all logic and can't seem to be duplicated.
"It's in northern China," says the first guy. I'm not the only one who groans at this news. While I am not a missile, I am potentially a weapon, which means it's highly unlikely that anybody will be able to secure permission for me to enter Chinese airspace by the time I get there. However, neither this nor the Chinese air force is going to actually stop me entering their country, which means I am almost certainly about to spark what is euphemistically termed an "incident". And that's just the least immediately threatening of the three problems currently facing me.
The second problem is that the newcomer, who will be twice as powerful as me in every way, will be Chinese. This means the Chinese will try to turn him into a weapon. We know they will, we have seen this happen before. Combined with the first problem, we have a potential World War on our hands.
The third and most pressing problem is: There is a lead-up period before each Birth. During this lead-up period, it is like someone reaches directly into your head, grabs the pain centres of your brain and squeezes them in both fists. The pain is unlike anything you have ever felt before. At the same time, a torrent of powerful aggression hormones is triggered, which proceeds to completely suppress rational, intelligent thought by the time the "lightning", or whatever it is, strikes. The practical consequence of this is that each person is Born temporarily insane. The berserker rage lasts something like fifteen seconds. Depending on how many people are around you when you are Born, who those people are and your general psychological makeup before the strike, that can be enough time for you - in your hyper-accelerated state - to violently murder anywhere from ten to ten thousand people. We have no idea why this happens. And we have no idea how to prevent it, or any of the rest, from happening.
The third problem is that China is the most populous country in the world, and the city of Lanzhou, where it has now been determined that the newest member of the Line is going to be Born, is currently one of China's most densely populated cities.
"Jason, you need to move faster. At this rate you're going to get there minutes after it's all over. You're lucky he appeared in range at all, you don't want to blow this chance."
I grit my teeth and push the mental button that makes me go faster. "Better?" I scream into the handset, which is frustratingly non-aerodynamic and slows me down when I try to use it. "What about Arika?"
"Forget her. Arika's nowhere. Not even part of the equation. You're still not moving fast enough. I'm going to pipe audio into your earpiece that'll keep you at the right speed. You remember how this works, right?"
"Sure." A loud continuous tone begins. I kick up my speed another notch and the tone gradually diminishes until it is gone, at which point I settle down to a steady rate of thrust, just on the very edge of breathable atmosphere, rolling slowly on my axis to minimise sunburn. I have to gently alter my trajectory downwards to compensate for the Earth's curvature. Gravity counts for almost nothing at speeds like this.
I hum epic Pink Floyd and idly wish I could get music, instead of guidance tones, piped into the fly-sized moulded receiver sitting in my ear. There is nothing like this. In the physical universe in which we live, it should not be possible for a human being, unaided, to fly like a bird. There should not be superheroes.
I become absorbed in the scenery and thirty minutes pass like a breath, the only break in the silence being an announcement from Control that the Mongolian border has come and gone without incident.
Locating the city of Lanzhou is a heck of a lot easier than anywhere else I've been in the past year. It is extremely easy to get lost while criss-crossing the globe at hypersonic speeds - I frequently end up either popping up into low space for a more coherent aerial perspective, or, if I happen to be in an English-speaking country, landing somewhere to ask for directions. You ever read those comics where they take a quick break and a coffee on the top of Mount Everest? Do you know how many mountains there are in the Himalayas? You can't find Mount Everest. I've tried. I doubt I even hit Nepal. This is different though - I can just follow the "glow". Like it's calling me home. Which, now that I think about it, possibly isn't the best simile.
There's an electronic plip in my ear and Control calls in again. "We knew this could happen: the Chinese have scrambled jets to intercept you at Lanzhou. They'll probably get there seconds after you do. They can't harm you significantly, but for the sake of plausible deniability and the minimisation of political impact we strongly advise you to get out of there as soon as you possibly can once the newcomer is dealt with. Got it?"
"T minus ten seconds. See you on the other side."
I'm roughly two seconds out of the city when something goes wrong with the picture. The glow spikes, just for a moment. It feels like a kick to the gut.
As I come in from a forty-five-degree angle all I can see on the approach is a stunning amount of agriculture on the surrounding hills and oriental architecture sprouting in between them. It's a blur - "Chinese city" is the best impression I can form of the place as I cross the city limits and bear down on the source of the incursion. But then I dip into the "zone" and start focusing and slowing my perception, and glance up ahead, and catch sight of the pillar of smoke.
It's an office building, caught in the act of being blown up. At this speed anything moving slower than a bullet looks all but frozen in space. The top five floors are expanding gently in all directions: I see steel girders, chunks of concrete, uncountable shards of glass, and people - well, bodies. Body parts. Clouds of blood, in some cases. There's a spark inside the pillar of cloud which is erupting above the tower, a faint light coming from inside it, bright enough for me to make out what's going on. There are people, suspended in mid-air - thrown up in the air, apparently motionless. As I get closer the spark resolves into a person, a figure with a bright halo, darting from one body to another like a gnat.
It's already started. This was supposed to be timed to the millisecond. The noise in my ear is still silent. I'm precisely on time. But he's already active. He's taken out his whole office block already.
I drop the radio and put the metaphorical hammer to the floor, tracing a gently banking curve through the air towards my adversary, trailing superheated air from my fingertips. I could try to save the people in the cloud but you can't touch an ordinary human being while in a hyper-accelerated state - it's like hitting them with a freight train. You need to be slow and very, very gentle. It takes time to catch a person and drop them on the ground safely - time which my adversary could use to take out more people. I need to take him out of the equation, and I need to do it as fast as possible. I can deal with everybody else later.
As I close in the cloud comes to resemble some obscene work of art, a war zone in zero gravity. People float, seemingly suspended inside the smoke, caught at the instant of the explosion, in every state from alive and unharmed through maimed to disembowelled to mere smears of gore, all alongside or slammed against enormous ugly weightless but still dangerously massy chunks of disassembled superstructure.
I bullet through the smoke, arcing upwards. He barely sees me coming - his raging ambient field will have masked my approach, which means I am able to take him by surprise, knocking him off-guard. I get a good punch in and wrap my arms around his waist in a rugby tackle. He's little: thin black hair, thin black tie, hot to the touch from air friction. He screams something at me but I ignore him and... and again, something's wrong with the picture--
He's about to start hitting back when we erupt out of the smoke cloud at a ten degree angle and that's when I see the second, taller office block right behind the first one. Mistake. Massive mistake. I try to pull up past it but there's not enough wiggle room. I duck and shield myself with the Chinese guy's body as we punch a diagonal hole through seven floors of rigidly constructed concrete and steel like a bullet through a box of tissues. The whole building is lifted off the ground by the impact - actually physically pulled, whole, upward off its foundations about two feet in the air and then dropped back down again. On my way through I spot several rows of businessmen and women watching the incursion from the office windows.
We smash upwards through the roof and keep accelerating. I'm still feeling a hundred percent but Chinese guy is dazed by the impact. His focus is wavering - more importantly, he's focused on me, now, not the civilians, whom we are rapidly leaving behind below us.
I recognised one of those faces in the cloud. He was mixed race, oriental/Caucasian. Younger and a tad shorter than me, and wearing not a suit but a t-shirt and dark jeans. A t-shirt I've seen before, black, with a white printed mathematical equation on it which I recognise but couldn't memorise if you gave me all day. There was a greyish drawstring bag slung around his shoulder, and on his face there was fear and shock where I am more used to seeing a cheery grin--
The air stands aside to let us ascend. We figured this out a long time ago. The sky is uninhabited. The sky is the only sensible place for superhumans to fight. I wince as the pressure in my inner ear skyrockets. My ears begin to pop. After one second I can't see the city below anymore. Another and we're almost out of atmosphere. The sky darkens visibly and my flame trail fades away behind me.
I spare a distracted glance at my enemy's half-closed eyes, which are shining from within, ice blue. That must be the light I saw. Did mine shine? This is the first time a member of the Line has intercepted another member in the process of Birth. I remember my eyes hurting, but I remember everything hurting. That doesn't make sense. Why would your eyes emit light? There are points of blue sparks at the tips of his fingernails. His clothes are ripped to shreds after the second tower block. Mine - I had some rather natty armour on underneath the heavy weather gear - are likewise barely staying together. A mad little thought bolts through my brain: Unless somebody figures out a battle suit which draws power from the person wearing it, future Line battles may have to be fought naked...
I give him another kick to keep him stunned, release my grip and accelerate onwards past him. Gradually I let my rate of perception increase until my ears finish popping. I take in the rapidly clearing star fields above me. I don't know if I'm technically in space yet, but it feels like it; my skin's going numb, all sound has been left behind and the water in my most recent lungful of air is crystallising as I exhale it. One of these days, once this is all over, I am going to see what I can do about going into space. Get involved with the ESA, maybe, borrow a space suit and see if I can handle the calculations to rendezvous with a satellite, or maybe a space station. See if I can reach the Moon before I have to turn back, or even go further. See if I can make some good come of all this...
Ching was his name. He was my neighbour. He lived across the street from my house for nearly a year.
Ching was my neighbour up until the day I was Born.
I halt my upward acceleration and start powering feet-first in the opposite direction, first cancelling out my previous speed and then reversing direction completely. From this distance I can't see the Chinese guy, only sense him, so I use the "glow" as a target. Fractionally before the collision I dip back into the zone again. This time, even fully focused, I barely see him coming. He has the beginnings of a fist raised; I catch him right in the chest with both feet. Combined collision speed: about seven kilometres per second.
There's a tussle, but the fight is really going out of him now - I reach forward and grab him around the waist a second time, shouldering him downwards and still accelerating. I aim for what looks like a mountainside. The clouds have just risen up and passed us as my enemy's ice-blue eye shimmer fades completely and his regular eye colour, deep brown, returns. His body goes limp in my hands. He twists his head and looks at me, fear and confusion on his face, and mouths a few syllables I don't understand.
Ching was my neighbour on the day I was Born and he was this man's co-worker on the day he was Born.
I let go of him milliseconds too late.
He slams into the mountainside perpendicularly with the force of a small nuke, but I can't pull up fast enough to avoid crashing down myself. I smash into bare mountain at a shallow angle a short distance downhill, and grind down the rock face, then through what feels like a mile of paddy fields. My forearms and chest take most of the impact. I finally come to rest at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. It hurts almost as much as being Born.
The real agony fades mercifully quickly, after I get a few moments to relax, here at the bottom of my comfortable pit of mud, but it still hurts like hell. I am not a naturally fit individual. I didn't work out before I was Born and I haven't worked out since. We don't even know if you gain anything from working out when you have these abilities - I've never managed to push myself hard enough to find out. I don't get tired, even flying at maximum speed. But after that landing... I haven't felt this bad since I was fifteen, playing - "playing" - rugby in the middle of winter, running around until I get knocked over, getting up again, getting filthy and bruised and freezing. I feel like a plane crash. I feel like death.
Mud begins to collapse on the angled tunnel I just bored, blocking out the light. I use the waning reserves of my strength to claw my way out into the blisteringly bright daylight, covered in red mud. My armour is still hanging together. Just about. In the television shows it always seems like the hero, no matter how badly beaten, retains just enough clothing to stay decent. Somehow that seems to be exactly what happened here. I have almost a full pair of trousers but just scraps in terms of upper body coverage. I might actually look pretty good, if my belly wasn't so big and hairy.
I scrape the worst of the mud off my arms and shoulders and rip off the more useless remnants of armour. After stretching painfully, I summon my resources and float with difficulty back up the horrific brown trench I've gouged through hills and hills and hills of stepped, shiny and immaculately tended paddy fields, and then up the badly scraped strip of rock above them, to the crater. It's half a mile wide, and smoking, and as I get nearer it becomes clear just how deep it is. I squint into it but can hardly make out the person I know must be still lying at the bottom, let alone sense him. I waft a bit closer and starting turfing over boulders, discarding them casually in the air behind me - I'm still working in accelerated time.
I slow down once I catch sight of blood, and stop completely when I realise that there's nothing else down here. No body. No body parts. Just blood.
I am not a violent man. The plan was supposed to avoid violence as far as possible. I wasn't supposed to get my hands dirty. That was why I liked it. I was going to distract him. I was supposed to hit him at the exact moment after he becomes invulnerable. Carry him into the air, smash him down on the rocks at full speed. Knock him completely out for the rest of the fifteen seconds. But something in the timing was wrong. I arrived late. And by the time he hit... I don't know whether it was the stress or the shock or the punishment he'd already received, but he'd turned neutral again. Or at least, neutral enough.
Every known Line member to date has killed somebody. Either during their Birth pains or afterwards or both. Even Arika. She was Born in her sleep, in her bed, at her home in Australia. She killed her whole family. It was a tragedy. She suffered because of it, and worse, she suffered right in the spotlight. But not me. I was on a trip that day, driving in Scotland. I was miles from anybody. I destroyed a mountain, but nobody died. My wife is still alive. My children still love me. I thought I was going to make it. I thought I was going to break the trend. Be the first of a new breed. Show the world what you can do right when you have this power.
It's gone beyond nations now. I know it. Arika knows it. We are part of a different system from everybody else. We are Born, intercepted and neutralised. We spend a year in training and intercept the next. It's the only way it can work. But it's a stopgap solution at best. What if you misjudge the punch? What happens next year? Or the year after? What about ten years from now? By then we're talking about people millions of times stronger than ordinary humans. What about twenty years? Thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred?
With shaking hands I stack the rocks back on top of the unknown. I'm not trying to cover my tracks. It's just that burying him is all I can think of to do. It's all I can think of to do to keep me distracted from what I've... what's happened.
Ching predicted this Birth. And probably mine too. He couldn't have known I would be away on the day but he knew it was going to be me.
Which means he can predict who's going to be next.
If he's still alive.
I look upwards. Over the hill there's a pillar of smoke, still expanding with glacial slowness. Behind it is a building, mid-collapse. Specks in the air are people in need of rescue. And far away in the distance are approaching vapour trails.
There's work to be done.
< On Digital Extremities | Fine Structure | Crushed Underground >
First noded 2006-12-21; removed at my request when an offer to publish was made by Cosmos magazine; restored after said offer was withdrawn.
David Brin likes this story. That's official.