by Than Pence
Thomas Malbourne is a superhero with an important choice to make.
| “How-- Why are you here?” Thomas cried, his throat constricting.
Mil’jon smiled coldly. Thomas felt sick. “I knew where you’d be when faced with this choice.”
Panic settled in.
“You’re stuck, frozen in mid-air.” He chuckled. “At a limit you weren’t aware of Shepherd.”
“That’s not my name!”
“But it’s the name you’ve been given. By your pathetic flock.” Disgust laced his tone. Clenching his fists, Thomas wondered how much longer he’d have to suffer before Mil’jon killed him. Or killed Jessica. If she’s not dead.
He remembered the photo on the shelf, her thick hair, the smile she hated because of the one turned tooth. A tear rolled down his cheek, unable to be wiped away.
Mil’jon continued, hovering before Thomas and his immobile body. The overcast, wintry air didn’t bother him. The tight green suit was warm, his white cape flapped like a flag. An empty field lay far below, a dense pine forest before him. “You’ve never put much thought into why, did you?”
“Say your piece or kill me, you bastard.”
“Oh,” he said, his smile curling. “I’m not killing any humans today.” He moved closer. The stench rolling off the humanoid alien turned his stomach: mulch and sour milk. But Mil’jon moved closer still, whispering two words. “You will.”
“What are you… talking about?”
Moving backward, Mil’jon continued, his black tight suit hiding any muscle definition.. “Let’s review your powers, Good Shepherd. You temporarily absorb humans and become… more.”
“Where is Jessica?!” The pain in his head increased, his muscles trembled.
Mil’jon casually pointed behind himself, toward the forest where Thomas had been headed before being stopped unexpectedly. The throbbing increased.
“So, you absorb them and you gain… super speed is what I’ve read on your electronic network web. And strength. You become a better human. And that’s with a few people. As more threats came down… stronger ones,” he said while pointing at himself, “you realize that you can absorb even more people with each cycle. Sometimes the same people. Oftentimes, you had to seek out new humans. And you'd get even better. And faster. And just…”
“I am... gonna tear your throat out!” Pain rippled through Thomas. He screamed, his throat burning, his eyes watering.
Mil’jon paused, unaffected. The sight of the alien’s passiveness made Thomas sob. He tasted blood and felt his nose running, the secretion moving across the ridge of his lip. He licked it, tasting nothing.
“Just better, Good Shepherd. Better in every way.” Mil’jon’s eyes widened then. “And then you found even more humans gave you the power to fly! Ha ha! A flying ape! What a sight!” He watched Mil’jon put a finger to his chin, a faux gesture of contemplation. “And the media counted for you, right? The crystal doesn’t tell you how many humans you collect each time.”
Mil’jon paused, stared into Thomas’ eyes. “You don’t really know how many you’ve… doomed.”
“Wh-what? What’re you…” his head swam. The pain swelled. White flashes appeared. Thomas tried shaking them away.
“What I’m talking about, Thomas Malbourne, is the jo’ten crystal inside you. What I’m talking about, Good Shepherd, is the purpose of that crystal. Why we sent it here in the first place.” He paused. “It’s easier to take over a planet when the predominant species destroys itself.”
“Just… what the fuck... Where’s…”
“The only way you’ll reach her is if you make a choice. If you make the right choice, Shepherd.”
“Stop calling me…!” His eyes fluttered. The flashing spots now had larger dark spots as company. He took deep breaths.
Mil’jon moved in as if sensing he was about to lose his audience. “It’s simple: you keep the power you have now, reach beyond your radius, and you can save Jessica. You just have to say ‘yes’.”
He glimpsed Mil’jon frowning and slicking his silver hair back. “Maybe not ‘yes’ exactly. But just agree to the question. The one that’s being asked inside that hideous mind. I know it’s a painful question, but one that is asked of all jo’ten receptors.” Mil’jon licked his lips and let out a sour breath. “You’ve reached the first milestone. Just … keep all those you’ve absorbed this time and that power is yours. Permanently.”
Realization settled in and Thomas let a wave of blackness wash over him.
* * *
Thomas awoke in his comfy chair, gasping as if he’d just been under water. He was in his regular jeans and t-shirt. Socks, no shoes.
“Whatcha doin’, babe?”
Standing in the kitchen before the sink, Thomas saw Jessica. His heart sent warmth throughout his body; he rushed to her.
“Whoa, you okay, babe?” she asked as he moved in to swoop his arms around her. She tucked her head to the side when he tried kissing her neck. “Babe, stop,” she said, giggling. “Your scruff, it…”
“Jess, you’re okay!”
“It’s just the dishes. I’m not gonna break a nail or anything.”
He wiped his eyes, smiling. “No, Jess. Mil’jon had you. Broadcasted it.” She furrowed her brow, her brown eyes briefly hidden by her squint. “He… he had you. He said…”
Thomas paused. Tears built up in his eyes again, his hand moving to his mouth.
Jessica continued washing dishes. Thomas looked past her to the city outside. Except Valent City wasn’t outside. What Thomas saw was his childhood front yard. Jessica met his gaze again, her scrubbing continuing. He looked into her brown eyes. They were wet but she smiled. The one tooth caught his eye and her smile vanished.
Thomas pulled his hands up to stroke her hair. “We’re about to have company. Babe. Don’t... “ She sniffled. “Don’t mess it up.” Looking down at the overly-sudsy water, she added, “Why don’t you go meet them at the door? They’re almost here.”
Ducking to look out the window, Thomas didn’t see any cars on the street, didn’t see any activity around the houses nearby. Deciding to play along, he went to the door. He paused long enough to kiss Jessica’s head and smell her shampoo: coconut.
As he reached for the door, a knock startled him. A stranger was staring at him through the glass: a black woman with kinky hair and a maroon cardigan. He slowly opened the door, the weight of it surprising him. Had it always been that heavy when he was a kid? Now whenever he absorbed enough people, he could lift vehicles.
“Can I help you?”
The woman didn’t answer and Thomas noticed she wasn’t alone. Behind her stood a man. He wore a blue windbreaker and stood hunched over a cane with his jaw suffering muscle tremors.
Stepping out, he saw more people. Hundreds. Over a thousand, he thought as he recalled newscasts and Internet articles. They always liked to report not just crimes he managed to thwart, but also the number of people he absorbed to do it.
It had been just over a thousand people when he discovered flight.
The memory made him gasp. Looking across the front of the house, he could still see Jessica through the window. The suds seemed higher, almost comically so. Her face looked full of grim determination to get whatever was in the sink clean.
“Tom”, came a familiar voice.
Thomas’ neighbor Billy gingerly stepped from the crowd, his hands in his pockets. His small frame looked thinner than ever. His usual blue jeans and blue striped shirt were wrinkled. “Billy, what’re you doing here?”
“We’re neighbors, Tom.” He looked around. “I'm always the first one here, buddy.”
Thomas nodded: the people before his childhood home and clogging Burnham Avenue were all those he’d most recently absorbed. And he knew that back in the real world, where they stood, they were immobile, each covered in a strong chrysalis.
Through terrible bouts of trial and error, Thomas had discovered that his enhanced powers were limited to a radius based on whoever he had absorbed. When he took in more people, his reach grew, as did his powers.
Was I just talking about all of this with someone?
“You were talking with Mil’jon,” answered Billy.
“This is your mind. You think it, we all hear it.” Those nearest nodded.
Billy smiled, looking shy. “He said you could keep us and… the level of powers you have now would be yours. Without having to…
‘’...scramble," they said in unison. Thomas was familiar with the effort it took to find people each time when needing to fight crime. Getting close enough to stop a criminal by absorbing them wasn’t always an option: bare skin contact was necessary and the Shepherd’s critics were quick to point out his flaws.
One article had referred to him as the “Slap Happy Sap”.
Thomas looked at the black woman: he had accidentally slapped her in the effort to absorb her and reach Jessica.
Thomas rushed inside.
“Hey, babe.” Her mascara was streaked. The suds threatened to block the view of the lawn.
“Look,” she interrupted. “I got it clean.”
Pulling her hands free, Thomas looked down, biting his lip.
In her yellow gloved-hands was something pink the size of a pill bottle: the jo’ten crystal. Thomas flashed back to when he first saw it over a year ago. It had crashed down, destroying a backyard shed and nearly killing a man. When he touched the crystal, it had absorbed into his body and his life had been altered ever since.
Jessica sniffled. “It’s… I got it clean. Finally.” She smiled, a brittle expression that made Thomas grimace. “Now… Go. Take it. And…” She trailed off as she pushed it into his hand. He wrapped his fingers around the crystal; she pulled away while removing her gloves, crossing her arms and putting a hand on the back of her neck.
“Jess,” he started. Is this real?
“It’s… It’s real. To you. And,” she continued, looking to the side, “I’ve never been good with goodbyes.”
When finally her eyes met his, he saw resolve. “But you know I wouldn’t want this.” Gesturing outside, she said, “All these people. For me?” She shook her head, the resolve crumbling slightly. “Frankly,” she started and then snorted. “I don’t know what’s taking you… so long.”
“Jess, I can’t…”
“You can’t kill these people, Thomas.” She bit her lip and wiped water from the corner of her eye. “A good shepherd… doesn’t kill his flock. And I know you hate that, but you are that! You are… this world’s Shepherd. And there’s more than just the Sor’tels out there. These people need you.”
He stared into her glistening brown eyes and didn’t know what to say.
“Say ‘No’, dummy.” She laughed once, falsetto. “Say ‘No’. And tell that asshole to go to hell.”
With his free hand, he reached up to rub her flawless cheek, felt warmth there with his thumb, and he cried.
He nodded once, mouthed a word, and reached in for a kiss.
Everything vanished before their lips touched.
* * *
Gasping, he awoke on the freezing ground. His green costume and white cape were gone. Thomas, wearing normal clothes, screamed.
Twenty feet away stood Mil’jon. Between sobs, Thomas watched him. The humanoid alien shook his head slowly. “You’re a fool, Thomas Malbourne.”
Mil’jon flew off. In the distance, Thomas heard a brief, guttural scream. His heart wrenched.
Sudden silence jolted him.
Watching the distant forest, Mil’jon flew back carrying someone.
Stopping in mid air, Mil’jon said, “Keep a better eye on your flock, Shepherd.” He looked at the blonde in his arms. “Looks like a wolf got her.”
Jessica landed with a sickening thud, her head flopping awkwardly. Thomas scrambled toward her like a dog, knowing a touch would confirm her state. She was warm. A spark passed between them… but nothing else. Mil’jon swooped down. His stench made Thomas gag. “I can’t kill you while that crystal’s inside you." That revelation made Thomas flinch. "But I’m sure gonna make you wish you were dead.”
As he flew off, Thomas cradled Jessica, crying loudly, drooling. He kissed her forehead, smelled her hair: coconut. He’d made a choice, but it wasn’t a choice he was sure he could live with.