Inside: Superhuman fiction, superhuman powers, antihero, ambiguously gendered protagonist.
Warnings: Death, gray moral compass, torture.
Shakespeare once described how to kill someone with kindness, through Petruchio in the Taming of the Shrew. I don’t think he realized that there would one day be someone that could do it literally. Though, arguably, the way he described it in the play was less sinister than the way it played out in my life. At least, from what I could remember from high school English classes, he meant to wear someone down, not bring their death by doing little things to show you care.
I first realized I had this power on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. No, a stormy Wednesday afternoon. No. Night. It was night, definitely.
So, like I was saying, a stormy Wednesday night. An old lady was crossing the street and–
Oh, who am I kidding, I can’t even take myself seriously.
Let me start over.
My name is Mortemer. I was at the age when kids first notice their powers (or lack of) when I accidentally killed my crush. There was a flower just out of reach through the fence, so I climbed it and presented it.
It didn’t happen at first. It was later that night my crush died. The First time it happened was different, though. Killing my crush only made me realize what I had done. No, the first time I killed was when I got an old lady’s cat out of a tree. At the time, I didn’t really know what had happened. She was old, maybe the excitement had gotten to her?
In any case, it happened again and again. By my teenage years, I had an accidental death toll that was far too high for a kid. I closed up. Shut down. I got mean and rude, like any kid would.
But then the deaths stopped. It seemed that being a jerk was the way to go if I didn’t want to ruin my life. Well, more than it was already.
Super children like me don’t get much of a life. We’re tested as soon as our powers manifest, then, if possible, we get training to use our powers. If you can’t train them, then usually you’re kept for observation.
I was the latter.
But enough about that. My story isn’t about how sad it was to grow up, it’s about Superheroes.
There were two major heroes in my city, and only one major villain. Indigo Striker, Tar Pit, and Doctor Bantan, in that order. Not the most creative names, but then again who had time for creativity when you were a Superhero?
Indigo Striker was the fan favorite. Tar Pit was almost comic relief. Doctor Bantan … Well, he was a force to be reckoned with. Most Supervillains refused to kill their counterparts, but Doctor Bantan didn’t care. He also didn’t care much for thoroughfare and the whole kit and caboodle of being a Supervillain.
Doctor Bantan was dangerous and people knew it.
I first saw him on TV. He had a swath of lawyers behind him, and he was giving a statement after being accused of the destruction of a part of the city where Super children were trained. I didn’t understand how things worked at the time, but it turns out that Superheroes and Supervillains are all subject to follow special laws – and sometimes need lawyers to get them out of lawsuits and jail time.
Luckily, I didn’t have that problem. My power was kept quiet because it was scary and involuntary. I was the mysterious kid you couldn’t get too close to, and for most of the time, I was alright with that.
Anyway, I’m a little off topic. What I was getting at was the first time I met all three of these celebrities in my city. Let’s just jump in, shall we?
“Mortemer?” My name sounded odd coming from a stranger. I looked up and smiled at the nurse, who didn’t return the favor. “The doctor will see you now.”
I nodded and collected my bag before following the nurse into the back. There was a flu going around, and I didn’t want to take any chances – so I was getting vaccinated. I hadn’t even gotten to the door that was gestured to when the first explosion rocked the doctor’s office.
There was a general sound of anxiety that passed through everyone in the building, then the movement started. People got up and left, and the doctor’s staff rushed to the front of the building. Another explosion, closer, got people screaming.
Debris from above crushed cars on the road outside, and I found myself taking cover in a doorway. That’s what they always told you to do in an earthquake, right? Maybe? Well it was close enough for me, in any case.
The windows shattered moments later, and the roof crumbled away in the far corner. Through the new hole, right smack in the middle of the street, was Indigo Striker. Like her namesake, she wore an indigo suit with black accents and unlike in the comics, it wasn’t so tight that she couldn’t move. It was snazzy and practical.
Her head snapped upwards and she raised her arms just in time to block something that rocked the ground out from under my feet. The rest of the front end to the building collapsed in a cloud of lung-hardening cement dust.
Coughing, I decided it was time to follow the crowd and get out of there – but when I went towards the back there was another blast that knocked me off my feet. Dazed and probably bleeding, I put my back against the remainder of a wall and covered my head. If I was to admit anything, it was that I was terrified. I had never been this close to a fight of this caliber before, and I wasn’t enjoying it.
Prepared to ride out the worst of it, I was surprised when a hand shook my shoulder in the midst of another explosion. It was Tar Pit that greeted me when I uncurled, all smiles and questions about if I was alright or not.
I nodded, resisting the urge to roll my eyes at him. He was worse in person. His Superhero getup was black and slick and skin-tight and his hair was gelled so flat to his head that he might as well have drawn it on with a marker.
Seemingly satisfied with my half-committed nod, he moved on to the next person still trapped in the building. I turned around and headed for the front. There was no way I was going to deal with this goody-two-shoes. This Superhero was the same guy who said on national television that his only motivation was the smiles on kids’ faces. Who does that kind of corny stuff?
My attention snapped to Indigo Striker as she climbed over the rubble and headed in my direction. Well, our direction. She only gave me a curt nod as she slipped by.
“Doctor Bantan is getting away and you’re in here?!”
I stopped my exit to watch the exchange.
“He will be back, we have citizens in danger!”
Indigo Striker scoffed, grabbing hold of Tar Pit’s beefy bicep. Tar Pit made a face but Indigo Striker didn’t seem to care.
Indigo Striker shot me a glance and lowered her voice, saying, “Drop the act and get your sorry ass back out there before he levels another building!” Even nearly whispering, I could hear her voice clearly. It carried well at least.
Sharing a look with Tar Pit for a moment longer, he finally nodded and she let go. Her power was all in her hands, and I didn’t envy the grip she must have had on him. They both moved past me brusquely, and I followed quickly after. If another building was going to fall, I was getting out of there.
Or so I thought.
It took less than a minute before there was rubble flying from a missed hit from Indigo Striker, crushing the pavement and blocking my path. I couldn’t help but swear loudly, especially seeing the danger a group of people hiding out were in right as it was happening. I had to make a snap decision about how they were going to die; Go out of my way, probably getting hurt, to usher them to better cover, or let the building being destroyed come crashing down on them.
I chose to let them fend for themselves – at least then there was a chance some of them might make it.
It also meant I had time to duck behind the van I was using for cover before a chunk of concrete and steel blasted rubble in my direction. The impact rocked the ground, and I didn’t stay standing.
Dazed, I picked myself up and made myself keep moving. If there was anything I had ever learned from watching movies, it was that staying still was not an option. So I headed back towards where I had come from, coming around what used to be a chunk of an office building in the middle of the street – and stopping just inches from the infamous Doctor Bantan himself.
He was faced away, and that was fine by me. Doctor Bantan fiddled with a small handheld device for a moment before turning to face me. For a brief moment, he looked startled. Then he smiled a gentle smile that caught me off guard. The TV just didn’t do his charm justice.
“Excuse me,” he said, stepping around me.
All I could do was nod and shuffle out of the way. Who knew what the device was, or if he was going to vaporize me with it. Until then, I had always imagined that coming face-to-face with a villain would be less intimidating.
Let me tell you, it was terrifying.
I watched him walk away for a few moments before turning and jogging in the opposite direction. Whatever he was headed towards, I didn’t want to be a part of it. Which, to be quite honest, was my first mistake.
Tar Pit was the one to step out in front of me. One of the advantages of his particular power was that he could turn into an unfortunate puddle of tar – which then could fall from dangerous heights or drip through cracks to get any place he wanted. And at that moment, it was in front of me.
“Citizen!” he proclaimed. “Are you in league with Doctor Bantan? What is he up to? Where did he go?”
I glanced back to where I had seen the Doctor last and there was no trace of him. Baffled, I stuttered, “What? I– No! I’m not–! I’m not helping him! And I don’t know!”
“You nodded to him, I saw it!”
“He was excusing himself!”
“Aha!” I groaned as Tar Pit seemed to inflate, “So you do have something to do with this!”
I didn’t get a chance to try and decry my innocence. I opened my mouth and there was a sharp pain at the back of my head. Then there was darkness.
Waking up was a nightmare. My head felt like a cement-filled balloon and my shoulders ached. The ache from where I had probably been hit by Indigo Striker could be felt all over whenever I moved.
It wasn’t long after I started moving around and groaning, figuring out that I was tied to a chair in the meantime, that the door opened and light flooded the room. It hurt and I had to squint but it didn’t take much of a genius to figure out who was holding me captive. Or why.
“Jess, this is unnecessary.”
“Call me that in front of one more captive, I dare you, Tar.”
“Fine!” Tar pit threw up his hands, half-smiling. “Striker, this is unnecessary.”
I sighed. “I would say so.”
A sharp glare was enough to tell me to shut up as Indigo Striker crossed her arms. “I already told you, we got in trouble last time we did waterboarding. We do it my way.”
Waterboarding. I nearly choked on myself – that was torture.
Tar Pit shot me a look and his smile faded. “That wasn’t even–! Striker, you’re scaring the,” he paused to clear his throat, “Citizen.”
“Oh cut the crap. You’ve done your fare share of war crimes.” She smiled sweetly at him. “Or would you rather he leave here alive and tell everyone how nice you are? You’re pathetically transparent.”
“Jessica,” said Tar Pit darkly, and for a moment I thought I saw something flicker across Indigo Striker’s face, “You are scaring the citizen.”
Her hand struck the side of Tar Pit’s face so hard it left an indent. Luckily, he was literally made of tar and it didn’t kill him. “That’s a warning, Derek.”
“I am not Derek!” he said after straightening his jaw, “I am Tar Pit!”
Indigo Striker, or “Jessica”, rolled her eyes. They snapped to me when I cleared my throat, though. She stared at me for a moment before turning towards me and letting her arms drop to her sides. Probably meant to make her look less of a threat, but it didn’t help. She was strong enough to crush some of the toughest gems in the world in her fists without blinking and she was quick enough with those fists to break the sound barrier.
I swallowed nervously, asking, “Any chance we could just get on with it? If you’re going to torture me, I don’t think I want to wait.”
Indigo Striker smiled a crooked smile. Tar Pit, or “Derek,” frowned deeply.
“Unless you’re going to let me go,” I continued. “That would also be a feasible option. I could go on with my life and pretend this never happened. Explain that something fell on me and you two–”
“Let me stop you right there,” interrupted Indigo Striker. “Let’s get some things straight. Tar Pit does the torturing. It’s my turn to do the interrogation. And you’re going no were until we get what we want.”
“And that is …?”
“Information about Doctor Bantan.”
I shut my eyes for a moment. Exactly what I didn’t want to hear.
“Look,” I said. “I can’t help you. I nearly pissed myself when I ran into him.”
Striker snorted and tried to cover it up with a cough. “Well, it’s too bad you didn’t. Might have lent credibility to your story.” She paused when I sighed, then added, “What’s your name, anyway?”
I grumbled an insult under my breath but didn’t answer. It seemed there was no getting around the questioning. It turned out there was no getting around being tortured by Tar Pit, either.
Indigo Striker spent an entire hour with my smart ass before turning me over to her partner. Turns out, Tar Pit really was one that routinely tortured folks in his private time and held up appearances meticulously to keep suspicion away. Who knew. I won’t bore you with the details.
When they were both done with me a couple hours later, they were still without information and I was a mess.
It was when they got a call about Doctor Bantan that I finally got reprieve. It was also when I escaped. I wiggled out of the duct tape keeping my arms behind the chair and climbed out a window that perfectly reflected the moon. And, with my luck, it was while I was climbing out the window when I was ambushed by some kid working for Doctor Bantan.
I was too tired and hurt to fight, letting this poor sap drag my sorry self into the back of a van and keep an eye on me while someone else drove us to one of the many warehouses the good Doctor owned privately. The warehouse was clean and had wrapped pallets of some kind piled up in neat rows. Pushing me with all of two fingers, the kid shepherded me into an office at the back.
Right where Doctor Bantan himself was waiting for me. That feeling of smallness swept over me again, coupled with a new panic.
“No,” I said. “Whatever you want, I don’t want to be part of it. Not–”
“Not when the others might get a hold of you again?”
I nodded. He smiled.
“Mortemer,” he said, “Have a seat.” I shook my head and he shrugged. “Have it your way. Do you know what it is exactly that I do?”
“No,” I said, “No one does.”
“Indigo Striker and Tar Pit do.”
I scowled at the names. “I bet they do.”
Another guard-breaking smile. “I’m trying to take down the program you went through. The Super Child Program.” He turned to pace, and I sat down. “Do you remember much about it?”
“How do you know about me?”
“I have your file from the last facility I demolished.”
“What do you want from me? I don’t have any information, I promise.”
Doctor Bantan stopped pacing long enough to laugh. It was a strangely boyish sound coming from a man with a salt-and-pepper beard and crow’s feet. “I want your help.”
“You have a power that could really help me out, Mortemer. And we both know that Indigo Striker and Tar Pit need to go.”
“I don’t know that, actually. They do good for the city.”
He tutted, gesturing to the boy that had led me in. “You met Jackson?”
Jackson nodded to me, and I nodded back to the doctor.
“Jackson went through something similar to what you just did. He didn’t get so lucky with escaping. I rescued him a full two weeks after he went missing. It took him a year to recover, but he’s been one of my best assets,” he stopped to smile at Jackson fondly, “And an even better friend.”
It took me a few moments before I shrugged. I felt like the biggest asshole, but I didn’t let it show on my face. “That hasn’t got anything to do with me.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t.” Doctor Bantan shrugged. “You haven’t changed much since leaving the facility. That’s good.”
“What’s your point?” I asked, sounding tired even to myself.
“You’re going to go out of your way for me, Mortimer. You’re going to, say, order Miss Jessica Clarke her favorite flowers – purple orchids, by the way. Maybe even buy Mister Derek Torres a pizza from his favorite place – I have a card you can have.”
I stared at him for a moment. “That’s it?”
“Won’t that make me a villain?”
Doctor Bantan’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “You really haven’t changed much at all since the facility. Mortemer, there are no such thing as a villain. I work against Indigo Striker and Tar Pit because they defend the thing I work to defeat. They are my villains.”
When he paused to lean against his desk, I expected more of an explanation. A long-winded speech from an over-confident villain. Nothing came except a long silence that I ended up feeling the need to break. “And what if I don’t help you?”
“Then you’re just another lost asset. I take you to the hospital and you go on with your life, however that ends up being.”
Suspiciously, I watched him for a moment. “That’s really the end of it? Because I’m not going to help you.” I didn’t mention that it was because he scared me stiff, too.
He sighed, gesturing back towards the door. “That is the end of it. Go, then. I have work to do.”
Tenderly, and cautiously, I did. I walked right out the front door without so much of a call back to try and convince me again. For a man who talked as much as Doctor Bantan, it surprised me. It surprised me even more when, several weeks later, he still kept his end of things.
Which brings us all up to speed. Mostly.
The door in front of me was simple, frosted glass and a placard on it indicating that the building was open for business. I got the address off the internet with surprising ease.
Turns out, too, that villains have fanbases like heroes do.
DOCTOR L. BANTAN, M.D.
The letters stared at me. I took a breath and turned the handle. I didn’t know yet where my allegiances were going to lie, but I knew it wasn’t with the pretend Superheroes Tar Pit and Indigo Striker. Not after what they did to me.
Who knew, maybe I would be the next big Supervillain in the city.