by Graham B.
A son of a superhero finds inspiration.
Thunderhead's fists cracked with sonic booms as he landed several heavy blows against Paladin's armored torso, to no avail. The concussions echoed through the alleys of Megapolis, rattling the buildings. Manuel Francisco could feel the residents huddling within, their fear seeping through the windows and tumbling down the windows like smoke.
Gods fight, and the people run and hide, thought Manuel.
He probed again for an opening into Paladin's mind and failed.
A muffled laugh squeezed out from under Paladin's chromed head.
"Hit me as hard as you like, Thunderhead!" he said. "You can't hurt me in armored form!"
Thunderhead stepped back, eyes blazing, jaw set, corded muscles stretching his silver-and-black outfit to its breaking point. Electricity built in the air like a coming storm, and the smell of ozone seared Manuel's nostrils. Scowling, Barry's eyes glowed like suns as the lightning leapt forth, racing up and down Paladin's body. Paladin kept laughing as the bolts were swallowed straight into the ground.
"That won't work either, Barry! Why not quit now while you're behind?"
"Zuum, a little help?" Thunderhead called out.
Cain Dowd was fifty feet away, looking resplendent in his purple and gold tights, and helpless in Sunny Fitzgerald's invisible force fields.
"No can do boss!" he said. "I've got my own problems!"
Sunny stood in front of Zuum, her hands held high, the force fields pinning Zuum's arms and legs immobile.
"Super speed?" she cackled. "More like super stooge! Where's the track star now?"
"Psyquick?" said Thunderhead, a note of anxiety breaking through his confident baritone. He began circling to Paladin's left.
"He's wearing a net, Barry," said Manuel. "My telepathy won't work! Get the net off, and I'll put him into dreamland!"
"Easier said than done!" said Barry, glaring at his own reflection in Paladin's face.
A roar overhead announced the arrival of Alice Sims.
"Sorry I'm late, Barry!" she said. "What did I miss?"
"Just in time, Infernia!" said Manuel. "Can you get Zuum free?"
Manuel nodded, pointing at Sunny. Infernia slowed to a hover, cupped her hands together, then released a fireball at Sunny. Sunny pointed in Infernia's direction, and the fireball reversed direction, heading straight back at Alice, who barely dodged. With only half a force field holding him, Zuum suddenly blurred, vibrating too quickly for the eye to see, but the remaining force still held him fast.
A boy no older than seventeen emerged from an alley at a dead run.
"I'm here!" he panted.
He stared at Sunny.
Something deep underground shifted. The concrete beneath Sunny's feet cracked open wide, swallowing her up to her waist. The force field faltered. That was all Zuum needed. There was a purple blur, and Zuum reappeared, holding what looked like a cafeteria worker's hairnet in his hand.
"Good job, Darren!" said Zuum. "Now, Manny!"
Manuel concentrated, feeling past Sunny's conditioning, her memories and fears, questing for her power. Finding the center of her talent, he took control. Sunny pulled herself out of the hole, her eyes vacant. She turned and faced Thunderhead and Paladin, raising her hands. Paladin froze in place.
"Infernia!" Thunderhead roared, and he quickly backed away from the immobile supervillain.
Infernia flew to over Paladin's head. A fountain of incandescent flame erupted from her outstretched palms, enveloping the armored form.
"Time to give up, Floyd!" said Thunderhead. "Or, she skips medium rare and goes straight to well done!"
Manuel heard a muffled voice from within the conflagration.
"Okay! Okay! I give up!"
The flames stopped. Infernia backed away and gently lowered to the earth, next to Thunderhead. Paladin's armor shimmered, then vanished, revealing a tall, gaunt iron-haired man with eyes like ball bearings. Thunderhead stepped forward, reached into the hair, and withdrew the net. Manuel immediately reached out and caressed the malevolent mind and felt what he usually found - the seething anger eating like acid at a malformed soul, topped with rampant narcissism and monumental megalomania - just like all supervillains. Beneath it all, Manuel detected something else, a faint cry for help...
"You won't win in the long run," said Floyd Pallas. "You may have me now, but your kind can't do what's necessary. I will return, and I will triumph!"
"Enough," snapped Thunderhead. "Sweet dreams!"
Manuel flattened Floyd's cerebral alpha waves, and the super-powered malefactor slumped into unconsciousness, still held upright by Sunny/Manuel's force fields. Manuel directed Sunny to lie on the ground, then put her to sleep, a tiny dribble of drool issuing from her mouth.
Barry Sims walked to the newly arrived teen and grasped him by the shoulders, a wide grin breaking out above his lantern jaw.
"You really came through on your first mission, Darren," said Barry. "I couldn't be more proud! My first mission didn't go nearly so well!"
He hugged Darren, and the boy responded with a weary smile.
Infernia flew over and joined the embrace.
"That was absolutely wonderful!" she said into the embarrassed teen's red hair, so like his mother's. "I would tell the whole world what you did today, if I could."
"Thanks, Mom," said Darren. He looked embarrassed, but pleased nonetheless.
"Now, let's not lay it on too thick, Alice," said Thunderhead. "Time to call the agency. The government is gonna be mighty pleased with this collar. The Protectors have really earned our keep today!"
"Hey!" said Zuum. "How 'bout a little love for the Purple Streak?"
"You get enough love from your six girlfriends," said Alice. "Don't you understand the concept of a secret identity?"
"I got a lot of time, and a lot of me to spread around," said Zuum.
"It's time you had a name, son!" bellowed Barry. "You've earned it. How about, oh... 'Rumble?'"
"Okay, okay, just throwing it out there," said Barry. "It's up to you. But you need a handle, something for the public to identify one of the Protectors."
"Dad, I don't know-"
"You are one of us, now! Enjoy it while you can. You'll be off to college next year, right?"
"Hold the thought, son. I have to call the cleanup crew."
Thunderhead walked off and pulled a radio from his utility belt.
"I'm going to do a quick survey of the damage," said Alice.
She lifted into the sky and began circling the building.
"Well, I've got a hot date!" said Cain.
"The twins?" said Manuel.
"That was last night. Meeting a hot one from the convention. She can make copies of herself! Seeya!"
There was a pop of displaced air, and Zuum was gone.
Manuel approached the brooding, young talent and nudged him.
"Everything okay?" he asked.
The fledgling superhero eyed Manuel warily.
"Reading my thoughts?" he asked.
"You know I would never do that to another Protector. I swore an oath."
Darren looked at his feet,
"So, I'm a Protector now?"
Manuel said nothing, letting Darren collect his thoughts. Though he didn't pry into the boy's mind, he could sense the emotions coming off him, a twisting mass of a waning adrenalin high, sadness, and confusion.
"I'm not sure I want to do this," the boy finally said
"Do what? Stopping the most dangerous people in the world from destroying it?"
"No! That's important! And I'm glad we stopped Paladin today. But I sensed something today."
Manuel already had premonitions about Darren, and now it was time to find out for sure.
"What did you sense?"
"Pain. Suffering. Floyd Pallas had a hard life. Didn't you sense it, with your power?"
"I can read every thought in his head," he said. "I know his history. You say you can sense it too?"
"Not at your level, Manuel, but yeah. I can feel what he's feeling."
"You're an empath," said Manuel.
"Empath. You can't read minds like I can, but you sense emotions, desires, fears. I suspected that you might have this talent."
"I have two talents? Isn't that pretty rare?"
Again, Manuel nodded.
"So, what now?" asked Darren.
"Well, use both talents in accordance with the Protector's Code of Conduct."
"C'mon, Manny. What if I want to use it for something else?"
Manuel peered into Darren's eyes, trying to fathom what he was thinking without violating his privacy. Darren saw his expression and immediately raised his hands.
"No! I don't mean becoming a villain! I mean... I don't know if I want to do this with my life."
"You've been wanting to do something else?"
The boy nodded.
Barry finished his call and put the radio away. He approached the two, just as Alice completed her survey.
"Cleanup crew is on its way," said Barry. "Those two will be at Sundown Maximum Security within the hour. Darren! Why the long face?"
Darren looked at his feet, and Alice reached out and touched his shoulder.
"Dad, I don't want to be a Protector."
Silence fell among the group, along with Barry's jaw. Manuel could hear the soft snores of Floyd and Sunny, still in blissful repose.
"I want to be a sculptor!"
"You... are a Protector. You...," Barry sputtered.
Manuel didn't need his power to tell that Barry's temperature was rising. He could smell ozone again.
"Dad, I've been thinking about this for a long time. I know I can be good at it."
Tiny arcs of electricity jumped from Thunderhead's eyebrows and crawled through his hair, making it stand up, and Manuel feared that he would have to break his oath.
"You. Can't. Be. Serious!" fumed Barry through gritted teeth. "Your whole life, you've been preparing for this!"
"You've been preparing me for this, Dad! This was what you wanted!"
"Barry, please...," pleaded Alice.
"No!" said Barry. "Darren's a man now! He doesn't need you to protect him, right? Do you really want to throw away your destiny, son?"
"This is my destiny!" shouted Darren.
He turned and raised his hands. Manuel felt a violent shifting of the pavement, like giants rubbing their fingertips together. Broken pieces of concrete left from the battle flew in from every direction and landed at Darren's feet. Manuel could feel the tension, the energy coming off the boy in waves as Darren focused every fiber of his being. The concrete shards shivered, then blurred, then began to change shape. Dust rose from the pile in clouds, obscuring it and making the rest of the party cough.
Darren slumped, his face slack with fatigue, and Manuel stepped forward and caught him before he could fall. As the dust cleared, the heroes gasped. A statue of Floyd Pallas, aka Paladin, stood straight and tall before them, a theatrically arrogant stance as befitted the man. But the face was a complex study of emotions; pride, anxiety, torment, and despair. It was as if Darren had captured Floyd's soul in a few cubic meters of concrete.
Slowly, the tension drained out of Barry's shoulders, and the smell of ozone disappeared. He walked to the statue and touched the face, almost tenderly.
"I - I had no idea," he said. "You can do this again?"
"I've been practicing for years," said Darren.
"And you hid this from me? Why?"
"I didn't think..." Darren trailed off.
"That I would approve?"
Barry walked to Darren and folded him into an embrace with his massive arms.
"If I had known you had this kind of talent..." he said.
"Dad, they have programs for people like Paladin, right? He needs help."
"I never looked at Paladin that way before. I'll see that he gets it. In the meantime, we need to look into getting you into the proper college."
Manuel felt elation leap from the boy.
"You mean-" said Darren.
"You'll be college age next year, won't you?" said Barry. "How does the Art Institute of Megapolis strike you?"
Word Count: 1957