A light rain fell, coating the city in a faint sheen of moisture. Elizabeth Fontaine paid the scattered droplets no mind as she walked briskly along the sidewalk, the soles of her boots tapping out a staccato beat on the damp pavement. Absently, she ran a hand through her short black hair, slicking the tousled locks back without regard to how awful her style must look. With the workday over, she no longer cared what the casual passersby thought of her appearance.
Not that they’d bother looking, she thought idly, glancing up at the gray sky and blinking away the occasional misty raindrop. She was rather plain anyway, with small brown eyes, a slightly upturned nose and weak cheekbones that did nothing to attract anyone’s attention. The kind of average woman that rarely drew a second glance, the sort one might pass on the street without noticing her at all.
Just another average, boring person, Elizabeth thought. With a boring job and boring life.
Rather than depress her, the rain lifted her spirits. The weather had been sunny and clear in New York for two straight weeks, so to her, a little precipitation seemed a welcome change. She didn’t mind getting her head a bit wet, after all. Her blouse and skirt were protected by the windbreaker she thought to bring along, so she felt reasonably comfortable despite the drizzle.
Rather than head home immediately, Elizabeth cut across the street and angled toward Central Park, intending to enjoy a casual stroll past the reflecting pool before returning home for yet another thrilling night of television watching. As she did, though, she heard a muffled thump in the air somewhere above. She stopped, joining several other pedestrians on the sidewalk as they stared into the slate-gray sky, curiously seeking the source of the sound.
A high-pitched whine attracted her attention immediately, and suddenly a black-clad figure sailed into view above a nearby tenement. His flight seemed erratic, and Elizabeth thought he must be in trouble, or else trying to dodge something. Or perhaps both.
An instant later another man appeared, swooping across the sky in pursuit of the first. This one sported a brightly colored, royal blue costume fringed with gold trim. A pair of powerful jets, strapped over his shoulders like a backpack, propelled him along in a steady, graceful arc. The jet pack produced the raucous noise that filled the moist air, drawing Elizabeth’s attention like a magnet.
As the blue-clad flyer maneuvered into a hovering position, he pointed a hand at the man in black and a bolt of energy shot out, missing its target by inches and slamming into the roof of a building below. Several onlookers shouted in dismay and started looking for cover. One watcher, probably a tourist, yanked a camera out of his bag and started snapping off photos.
“Watch what you’re doing, you idiot!” another pedestrian yelled, shaking his fist at the sky. “Damn supers!”
Elizabeth paid no attention to the people around her. Fascinated, her eyes remained locked on the battle far above. She recognized the man in the blue costume as “Jetboy,” a well-known and much-liked hero who’d foiled countless crimes since his first appearance three years or so ago. In addition to his flight suit and energy bolts, he used a force field to protect him from bullets and explosions. Despite his almost child-like name, there was nothing boyish about him—he looked like a weightlifter, sporting powerful muscles that looked ready to burst out of his costume.
The man in black looked puny by comparison—hardly a match for the much larger hero, or so it appeared at first glance. He had a slim build and flew erratically, limbs twitching with jerky, almost unnatural movements. He wore a hood-covered mask, and his costume had no highlights or prominent symbols, giving no hint to his identity, but this came as no surprise. Most of the city’s supervillains tried to stay out of the limelight, for obvious reasons, rarely stepping into the public eye. They tended to treasure their anonymity, except for the most powerful and notorious ones like Crimelord and the Zombie King, who were megalomaniacs anyway.
Elizabeth watched in awe as the two opponents danced and weaved in the rain-flecked sky above. Jetboy occasionally fired off an energy bolt, sometimes connecting and sometimes not, but these only seemed to temporarily stun the man in black. For his part, the villain tried to swoop in and punch or kick the blue-suited hero, and when he did land a blow, it seemed to actually hurt Jetboy. For some reason, the hero’s trademark force field didn’t seem to be working right.
After a minute or so of aerial dogfighting, the battle drifted away over the top of the building behind Elizabeth. Now she could only hear the fight, not see it. Occasional blasts from Jetboy’s hands remained audible, as did a couple of reciprocal smacks as the man in black landed a blow. The two opponents also traded words as they fought, but Elizabeth was too far away to make out what they were saying.
Most of the inhabitants of New York City were used to the sight of costumed heroes flying around and fighting crime. The first of these “supers” appeared back in the twenties. The scientists of that era suggested the sudden appearance of mutations and strange powers might be a consequence of the Earth passing through the tail of Halley’s Comet a few years before, although nobody ever conclusively proved that theory. According to the “Halley hypothesis,” the accidental contact strewed a cloud of intangible alien particles, euphemistically called “Magic,” through the world’s atmosphere. Occasionally, enough Magic would settle on an otherwise normal person to change him or her in some random, unpredictable way. When these alterations produced special powers, the lucky recipient joined the ranks of the privileged subset of humanity known as “the Enhanced.” Colloquially, the term “super” described such individuals, and in fact, nobody really used that word for anything else anymore.
Those fortunate enough to acquire superpowers became subject to an additional set of laws, because all too frequently the rules applied to ordinary humans didn’t cover a super’s special abilities. For example, the individual had to register his powers with the government, in much the same way as ordinary citizens signed up for social security numbers. Furthermore, society expected the Enhanced to use their powers for the public good where applicable. In much the same way that a “normal” avoided littering and obeyed the speed limit, a superhuman used his abilities to halt crimes in progress and assist those in danger. While no law specifically forced the Enhanced to put on costumes and actively seek out crimes to foil, supers were expected to not just stand around and watch one take place.
Most of those who considered themselves “superheroes” interpreted the law to mean protecting the public was their responsibility, and they acted accordingly. In response, the police and other law enforcement agencies worked with them and accepted their existence, so long as they were properly registered with the Vigilantes League and obeyed the rules set forth in that group’s charter.
Of course, some of the Enhanced didn’t share the positive world-view of a superhero. Many of them kept their powers to themselves and used their gifts only in secret. The ability to read minds or turn invisible proved too tempting for many, and they simply couldn’t resist robbing the occasional bank or taking advantage of others. No one really knew just how many of these people there were in the world, but some estimates put the count in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even the low millions.
A few of the more powerful evildoers put on costumes of their own and became enemies of society. These so-called “supervillains” used their enhancements for their own gain, or for malicious purposes, and were universally hated and feared. Such was the man in black in the sky above, apparently. He obviously had the power of flight and could somehow penetrate Jetboy’s force field, though how he did this remained a mystery to Elizabeth. He also had little trouble shrugging off those energy bolts, she noted.
Ever since she was a little girl, Elizabeth had been intrigued by anything and everything about the Enhanced. Actually, intrigued wasn’t really a strong enough word—fascinated might be better, or perhaps obsessed, at least some of the time. Supers always seemed to be in the news, whether for good or ill. They resembled Hollywood actors, all famous and adored by the public. However, unlike an actor, who had no problem being seen on the street, most superheroes kept their true identities secret. It wouldn’t do to have a villain or enemy come after the hero’s friends or family—a distinct vulnerability even the toughest super couldn’t always protect. For that reason, heroes rarely mingled with the rest of society, staying comfortably hidden behind their mysterious masks and veils.
The media, of course, gleefully ate this all up. Finding out a hero’s secret identity would be a simple matter for a reasonably skilled reporter, but the law explicitly forbade this—a rule respected by all reputable journalists. Attempting to blackmail a hero with such information was a crime carrying memory erasure as a punishment. Instead, reporters focused on what superheroes did, not who they were, which was just as well for everyone involved. And, at least as far as ratings went, a superhero’s mysterious nature made for great press. And Elizabeth loved every minute of it.
She rarely missed the half-hour nightly TV show, Heroes Today, which followed the evening news and narrated the day’s heroic events. She subscribed to all the popular super magazines, and whenever a local hero received a city award or medal for uncommon valor, she always managed to find the time to attend the ceremony. During a particularly violent battle, such as the time two years ago when the entire League showed up to fight the Zombie King’s army of corpses, she ignored the police warnings and hurried to watch the action, heedless of the danger.
The same thing happened today. The battle above drifted out of sight above the nearby structures, but despite the chance she might be accidentally clipped by one of Jetboy’s stray bolts at any moment, Elizabeth hastened around the building to follow the duel. As she rushed across the rain-drenched pavement, crossing streets with only the barest glance at approaching traffic, her eyes rarely left the sky. She hurried off the beaten path and into a series of alleys, the kind of place few young women would want to venture into alone, but she thought nothing of this, wanting only to catch a glimpse of the rest of the fight.
Finally, gasping for breath from her unusual afternoon jog, she came around a corner into a blind alley. She stopped, looking up just in time to see the man in black grappling with Jetboy. The hero seemed to be in real trouble, and the normally constant whine from his pack’s engine now sputtered weakly. Could he be out of fuel? Elizabeth doubted that, as she remembered reading in Supermag that it could operate for hours. Surely the battle hadn’t been going on that long?
She watched, fascinated, as the two assailants pummeled each other, and then Jetboy leveled an energy blast directly in the black-clad man’s face. The villain’s mask came apart, and to Elizabeth’s surprise, she saw no flesh beneath, only metal. Not a supervillain at all, but some kind of robot!
Jetboy, too, looked surprised by this revelation. Most of the android’s false face hung in tatters, revealing a shiny metallic surface beneath, molded in the shape of a man. As Jetboy hesitated, the android lunged behind the hero’s body and crushed a section of his engine pack. Sparks flew, and Jetboy shouted in alarm as his thrusters sputtered and went out. However, at the same moment, the robot shuddered as a surge of electricity passed into it, causing it to shake and jerk spasmodically.
Suddenly, the robot flung Jetboy violently away. The blue-and-gold-clad hero struck a nearby wall and cried out in pain, bouncing down a fire escape and landing with a loud smack in the alley below. The android, its limbs still twitching uncontrollably, flew up into the sky and away from the scene.
Good Lord, thought Elizabeth, gaping in horror. That thing actually beat Jetboy!
* * * * *
Even as she stood there, the rain pattering softly all around, Elizabeth heard a mournful cry from the alleyway ahead. The low keening sounded like the moaning of a man in pain. Without regard to the dangerous possibility that the android might return at any moment, she rushed forward, around a trash dumpster, and beheld a terrible sight.
The fight and fall weren’t kind to Jetboy. His famous jet pack was a mangled wreck, and his muscular body looked bent and broken. The distinctive blue-and-gold helmet, which Elizabeth knew housed several gadgets, was smashed almost beyond recognition. Underneath the tattered remains of his colorful hood and shredded visor, his eyes were swollen and blackened, and at his side, his right arm lay twisted at an impossible angle. Amazingly, his costume didn’t look the slightest bit damaged.
“Ohhh…” the fallen man moaned, obviously in a great deal of pain. He didn’t seem to have noticed Elizabeth yet. “Damn, that thing nearly killed me!”
She stepped forward, looking down at the crippled superhero, and her body gave an involuntary shudder. All her life she’d dreamed of meeting someone like this—one of the Enhanced! Aside from the occasional handshaking pass through a crowd, though, she hadn’t actually seen one up close. This wasn’t how she ever imagined such a meeting would take place.
Like many people, men and women alike, Elizabeth had her own private dreams and fantasies about the Enhanced. Frequently these were variations on the “handsome prince” theme, where a dashing superhero rescued her at the last moment and carried her off into the sunset. She had her own favorites, such as the hunky Heavyweight or the mysterious Black Ace, as well as a few others, including Jetboy. Inevitably, in her dreams, the impossibly handsome man fell for her at first sight, bearing her away to his private lair for some super-powered lovemaking.
Such a stupid and childish fantasy—the sort of thing Elizabeth never dared tell anyone, for fear of the ultimate embarrassment! Still, somehow, she always secretly hoped her dream would one day come true. The starry-eyed vision of the valiant superhero seemed to slip away, draining into the gutter with the rest of the rain. Jetboy, broken and battered on the concrete before her, was in no shape to carry her off. He’s the one who needed help.
The crippled figure stirred and turned ever so slightly. “Are you going to just stand there,” he groaned in a raspy voice, “or are you going to do something?”
Elizabeth jerked herself back to reality. The bleeding superhero gazed up at her, gripping his broken arm and grimacing in pain. A thin trickle of red leaked from the side of his mouth, just barely visible under the bent helmet.
“Seriously,” he went on, gasping for breath, “I could really use a little help here.”
His agony seemed obvious, but he wouldn’t let it show in front of a normal. Elizabeth didn’t know if she should laugh at his fake politeness or feel insulted by his unintentional condescension.
“Sorry,” she replied weakly. “I—I don’t know what to do. I’m not a nurse or anything.”
“Do you have a cell phone?” asked the wounded hero hopefully. “My helmet radio got smashed early on in the fight.”
“What? Oh, yeah, I have one right here.” She reached into her purse, almost slapping herself in the head for forgetting about the phone. She could’ve called for help at any time, but instead just stared stupidly at Jetboy like a dazzled schoolgirl.
“Dial 9-1-1,” he told her weakly. “When they come on, say you have a code forty-five.”
She nodded, stepping back against the wall to keep the cell phone out of the steadily falling rain. After a moment the operator came on the line, and Elizabeth did as Jetboy instructed.
“Code 45 acknowledged,” said the voice on the other end of the phone with some haste. “Which hero is down?”
“Jetboy,” she answered at once.
“What’s his status?”
“He’s, uh, all messed up,” Elizabeth replied worriedly. “I think an arm’s broken, and he’s gasping really bad. His pack’s pretty much destroyed, and I don’t think his force field is working, either.”
“Understood,” replied the operator swiftly. “Are you with him right now?”
“Yes, we’re in an alley somewhere near Seventy—”
“No need for that, ma’am,” said the voice calmly. “Just leave the phone on. The Trauma Team will follow its signal to your location. I’m going to hang up on this end, but don’t turn yours off. If the team doesn’t get there in five minutes, call back.”
“Okay,” Elizabeth replied, and a click sounded in her ear. Shrugging, she set the phone down on the ground, in a spot as yet untouched by rain.
“Thank you,” said Jetboy, gritting his teeth through the pain of his injuries as he shifted into a slightly more comfortable position. “It’s a good thing you came along. I think I have some broken ribs and maybe a perforated lung.” As if to punctuate this statement, he started coughing violently. Spatters of blood came out of his mouth, leaving crimson swirls in the puddles nearby.
“I—I was watching your fight,” she said nervously, suddenly afraid he might die right in front of her. Better keep him talking, she decided, figuring if nothing else it might keep his mind off his injuries. “You were getting pounded on pretty bad. What happened to your force field?”
“Destroyed…somehow,” he replied through a series of rasping coughs. You—you know about me?”
“Of course,” she answered. “Doesn’t everyone? You’re one of my favorite superheroes.” Immediately she winced, cursing herself. Did I actually just say that out loud?
“Thanks,” he gasped, forcing a smile despite his obvious pain. “You know, I’m not really a superhero, though. I’m just an ordinary guy with some really cool toys.” He tried to laugh, but only wound up hacking up more blood.
“Oh, I know that,” she laughed back. “But it’s what you do with them that counts. God, what I’d do to be like you!”
He reached up and began removing the mangled remains of his helmet, but decided against it. A few jagged chunks of visor protruded too close to his eyes and face, so he wisely chose to avoid hurting himself any further. His dark hair, matted with blood, clung tenaciously to the broken pieces.
“What do you mean by that?” he asked after a moment, wincing with almost every word. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
Elizabeth smiled despite herself. He managed to remain polite, even after everything that had happened to him. “Oh, you know,” she answered with a shrug, glancing shyly away from his penetrating gaze. “It’s the same thing every normal thinks when they look up and see supers flying overhead—what would it be like to be one of the Enhanced?”
He turned his head, not without some effort. “You went out of your way to help me,” he rasped. “Not many people would do that.”
“Sure they would!” she insisted. “Anybody would. Really!”
“No, you’re wrong about that,” he insisted, shaking his head. Shifting again and sitting up, he caught his breath and spoke in earnest. “Most people are afraid of us. Why wouldn’t you be? A lot of accidents happen in a battle—a lot more than get reported. Most people run away when they see us fighting, but not you. You have courage.”
“More like stupidity,” she mumbled, hoping he wouldn’t see her blushing through the steady haze of rain.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said, coughing. “Seriously. Just getting close to me is risky, you know. My jet pack could blow up at any moment.”
“What?” She stepped forward, horrified. “Do you want me to get it off you?”
“No, no, just kidding,” he half-laughed. “It can’t explode—there’s no fuel. It’s not like it runs on gas, you know. I was just proving a point. See, an ordinary person would already be running away, but you’re still here—and you wanted to help me, despite the danger.”
She grinned foolishly, turning her eyes away in embarrassment. “Like I said, it’s pure stupidity.”
Over the sound of the pattering rain, a siren wailed. The noise quickly grew louder, approaching from the direction of the Hero Ward.
“That’s the Trauma Team,” announced Jetboy. “Good, I was starting to think they were losing their touch. Listen, I owe you one. What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth,” she answered without hesitation. “Elizabeth Fontaine.”
“Glad to meet you,” he said, not bothering to offer his own real name, which was a well-kept secret. Of course, Elizabeth now had a perfect opportunity to remove his shattered helmet and get a look at his face, but the thought of doing so never entered her mind. Besides, it was against the law to take off his mask without permission.
“I mean it,” Jetboy went on. “I owe you one, Elizabeth. Tomorrow, come see me in the Ward. I might have a way to repay your kindness.”
She stood there for a frozen moment, totally thunderstruck. Ordinary people weren’t often invited to visit the Hero Ward! “But—but how will I get in?” she asked, trying to hide her giddy delight at this honor.
“I’ll make sure they leave the front door unlocked for you,” he answered, smiling up at her. Then he started coughing again, and more blood splattered the pavement around his broken body. A couple of drops struck her boots, and she wiped them away absently, wishing she could do something else to help.
A moment later, the wailing reached a crescendo. A round, saucer-shaped vehicle appeared over the adjacent wall, zipped swiftly overhead, and settled straight down into the alley. A giant red cross covered the vehicle’s smooth underbelly. The Trauma Team had arrived.
Elizabeth shielded her eyes as the VTOL craft kicked up ground clutter and rainwater as it landed a dozen or so yards away. Twin whirling rotors spun down, causing the deafening wail to slowly fade away. Two uniformed men quickly jumped to the pavement and rushed to Jetboy’s side.
“Thank you, ma’am, we’ll take it from here,” one of them said as he passed, hardly giving her a second glance. They started administering aid quickly, apparently well versed in what to do to treat a fallen superhero.
After about a minute, they bound up his arm and stretched him out carefully on the ground. Then, to Elizabeth’s amazement, Jetboy rose slowly up into the air. One of the two men held a hand over him and squinted, obviously levitating the hero with some kind of mental power. He must have only a minor enhancement, Elizabeth realized. Not enough to be a superhero, but he’s still doing his part.
Even a minor ability like that would be amazing, she remarked to herself, wondering what it would feel like to be able to lift people and objects into the air with but a thought.
As the paramedics floated Jetboy over to the saucer, he looked over at Elizabeth and smiled. “Thanks again,” she heard him say. “Be sure to come tomorrow. I’ll make it worth your time.”
“I’ll be there,” she agreed, her mind still awhirl. The events of the past few minutes seemed nearly overwhelming. She felt amazed and thrilled, almost as if she could lift herself up and fly away, even without any enhancements at all.
Her thoughts spinning, she watched the Trauma Team take off. Her eyes didn’t leave the saucer until it disappeared completely into the overcast sky. Around her, the rain slowed and finally ceased entirely.
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” she whispered softly to herself. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”