The memories swept over him like a flood—memories of his greatest failure.
He remembered his time on Valtaria well, a planet on the outer edge of the Milky Way. The Valtarian people were a proud race that could change their appearance slightly and transform their bodies into metal. Whether the metal resembled silver, gold, copper, or bronze, this skill made them as durable as steel and very hard to kill.
It wasn’t enough to protect them.
Their enemy, the Zazarites, descended upon them with their superweapon. These spider like enemies with black chitin armor and four arms each were too numerous. The Valtarian army was unable to hold them back and stop the advance of the superweapon. This gigantic bomb drilled to the core to break the whole planet apart, leaving the raw materials for the Zazarites to plunder.
He tried to stop it. He was the superhero MagKnight, with the power to control metal with magnetic fields and shoot electricity from his hands. He wore a metal suit of armor like a knight of old that he reinforced with his magnetism, making it durable enough to withstand many physical blows from even the strongest of enemies. His powers truly made him a force to be reckoned with.
It hadn’t been enough to protect them.
No matter how many Zazarite soldiers he struck down, more seemed to take their place. Pushed to his limit, he became too injured to fight, and Valtarians had to carry him out as they retreated. He remembered the evacuation, the scramble to get to ships before the bomb went off. He remembered the flight as they escaped, watching in horror as they saw the explosion, the planet breaking apart. He remembered the helplessness as the shockwave from the blast destroyed so many valtarian ships, leaving only a handful to escape. He remembered holding a weeping valtarian woman, telling her how sorry he was.
All these memories rushed through his mind in just a few seconds, prompted by an unexpected question. That question had been asked by his half human, half valtarian son Andy.
“Dad, why did you stop being a superhero?”
John Gatlin was taken completely off guard. The weary looking middle aged man had just been working in his office when his son asked this question out of the blue. John’s fingers lay frozen over the keyboard as the document he’d been working on remained unfinished on his computer screen. Slowly he pulled his hands away and turned to his son, Andy.
Andy Gatlin was only twelve, with white hair like his mother, but the fair skin and blue eyes of his father. Those eyes looked up at his father with an apparent innocence and confusion.
“Why do you ask?” said John.
“Some guy on the news,” said Andy. “He said that people who don’t use their powers to help other people are being selfish. Is that true?”
John sighed, running a hand through his salt and pepper hair. He knew he had to explain this but was reluctant to do so. John reached out his hand to the corner where some metal folding chairs lay and stretched out his magnetic abilities to levitate one of them over. He then unfolded it and set it down next to Andy.
“Go ahead and sit down,” said John.
Andy did so, his feet dangling off the end of the chair.
“Andy,” said John. “You know what happened to your mother’s planet, right?”
Andy nodded. Andy had, unfortunately, overheard a conversation between his mother and his Valtarian uncle. That conversation about their homeworld had ended with the uncle sobbing. After that, Andy had too many questions to sweep the conversation under the rug. They’d been forced to explain things to Andy far sooner than they would have liked. John didn’t realize he’d left out the reason for his retirement, but he supposed he had.
“Well,” said John. “After I failed to save Valtaria, I started to doubt myself. I kept questioning if I was making good decisions…or if I was about to. I kept being a superhero for a while. It was my life’s work to help people, but things changed after that day. I’d go on missions, and anything that reminded me of what happened to Valtaria made me…well…freeze up. I just couldn’t think of what I should do next, and I’d just stay where I was, unmoving.”
“Why?” asked Andy.
John hesitated for a moment, thinking his next words through carefully.
“Sometimes,” said John. “When something bad happens to you, it can be hard to deal with being reminded of it. That’s why I froze up.”
“Oh,” said Andy.
John waited a moment for the child to absorb that. He figured that Andy would understand someday.
“Anyway,” said John. “I froze up often enough that other superheroes were constantly bailing me out. In the end, I just had to face the facts. I wasn’t prepared to do the job anymore. It was hard, but I ultimately made the decision to retire, and now, here I am.”
Andy looked down for a moment, just taking it all in. When he looked up, he had another question.
“How hard was it?”
John thought about it, lifting his hands and letting electricity dance between them for a moment as he reminisced.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life, but that’s part of having powers. It’s not just about knowing when to use them. Sometimes you have to know when you shouldn’t use them.”
“So that guy on the news was wrong?”
“It depends,” said John. “Personally, I think you should help if you have the capability to, but that’s not my decision. Some people just don’t want to risk their own lives, but that’s far from the only reason, and many have good reasons for not using them. People like me. Even if someone disagrees, a person who doesn’t want to be a superhero won’t be as effective or as passionate as someone who genuinely wants to do it. At the end of the day, people have to make this decision for themselves.”
Andy looked away again. The young child raised his hands and squinted. Moments later, his hands transformed, becoming like polished steel as electricity danced over his fingers. He’d inherited powers from both of his parents, and they were just starting to show. Andy let the powers go, then looked up at his dad.
“Do you think I should use my powers to become a superhero?” the child asked.
John closed his eyes. He’d wondered when this subject would come up.
“Well,” said John. “You’re not doing so while you’re a child. No way. Of course, you won’t be a child forever. When you grow up, what you choose to do with your power will be up to you. All I ask is that you think it through as thoroughly as possible. Luckily, you’ll have plenty of time to do that before you grow up. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Andy.
Andy didn’t mention that he’d already thought about this a lot. He’d learned of his father’s old exploits as the superhero MagKnight. He’d seen old footage of his father holding a building together so people could escape, fighting aliens, and even using metal sheets to hold back a flood. He saved a lot of people, and it made Andy want to do the same. If anything, his father’s story made him more determined. There was evil in the world, and someone had to stand up against it. Andy had decided he would be that person.
Just like his father used to be.
Six years later.
It happened at night, the moon and stars shining, reflecting off the windows of every skyscraper in the city. All was normal, and then there was a flash of blinding white light. That light began to grow, and it kept on growing until it covered the entire city. For a moment, that light stayed there, lighting up the night for miles around. And then they were gone, both that strange light and the city itself. All that was left was a gigantic crater.
The news reported on this event the next day.
“At 10:54 P.M. last night, a mysterious explosion destroyed Redwell city, leaving no survivors in its wake. At this time, the source of this explosion remains unknown, but authorities and superheroes have already begun their investigations.”
On that same day, the oldest superhero in the world was interviewed about this tragedy. That hero, Paramount, was a tall, muscular man with short, wavy black hair, a finely sculpted beard, piercing brown eyes, and a face that projected strength and confidence. Despite being a superhero since the forties, he looked no older than his late twenties or early thirties. He wore a skintight blue costume with white boots that came to a point below his knees and white on his wrists that also came to a point. Starting over his shoulders, a white triangle went down to his waist, and in the center of that triangle was a black hexagon with a white letter P in the center. He stood in a busy street, surrounded by reporters as microphones pointed at his face.
“I assure you,” said Paramount, “We, The United Heroes of Earth, will get to the bottom of this.”
This prompted questions from every reporter there.
“Paramount!” cried a reporter. “Redwell City had no superheroes of its own! Do you think a superhero on the scene could have stopped this tragedy?”
“I know where you’re going with this,” said Paramount, turning to that reporter with a stern gaze. “The E.H.O.D.’s proposed power user draft. Right? Well, as I’ve said many times before, we can’t force people to risk their lives. People should have the freedom to make that decision on their own. Besides, we have no way of knowing if a superhero in that city could have stopped it. If one had been there, there’s a good chance that hero would be dead too. I guarantee you, that explosion would have killed even me. Please, let’s not get distracted from what’s important; mourning the loss of life and discovering the origin of this explosion. As I said, the U.H.E. will get to the bottom of this, and if anyone is responsible, we will bring them to justice.”
E.H.O.D. stood for Enhanced Human Oversight Division, a government organization that had pushed a power user draft for a long time. While Paramount and Most of the U.H.E. were against this, many were for it, including one news reporter Patrick Powell. This thirty something man with dark hair, blue eyes, and a stern expression responded directly to Paramount on the Hammerhead News Network.
“With all due respect to Paramount,” said Patrick, a window showing a city behind him. “Redwell city would have had a much better chance of survival with a superhero working there than without. The data is clear. Both regular criminals and supervillains will migrate to cities with no superheroes patrolling, causing an increase in crime and death. That’s not even to mention extraterrestrial attacks, mutant animals running amok, or even zombie outbreaks in such places. Some cities have to wait over an hour for a superhero to arrive at the scene, sometimes more, and local police are often ill-equipped to deal with such threats.
“While we’re grateful to bounty heroes or otherwise mobile heroes for their efforts to mitigate this, a city without a superhero of its own is at a severe disadvantage. Meanwhile, we have power users who use their power in an ordinary job, thereby taking jobs away from the rest of us, or otherwise don’t use powers at all,” he looked into the camera, his eyes wide and forceful. “If one can stop bullets, then the death of anyone from a bullet you could have stopped is on your head.
“It used to be that we would draft ordinary men and women to fight for their country in times of great need. Now, more than ever, we have extraordinary people out there and more need for their power than ever. You do the math.”
Another superhero was interviewed that day as well. Morphic Man was a tall, slender, brown haired man who wore a skintight orange costume with purple running down his sides. One could find the twinkle in his eyes charming, whether it was his blue eye or his green eye, though people were split on the smug smile he often wore.
“I mean, I respect Paramount,” said Morphic Man. “But the guy’s not exactly as young as he looks. He may not be aging on the outside, but how do we know he’s not aging in the brain?” his smirk widened as he tapped his head. “Cities have all these crime and mutant problems, and Paramount is still insisting that power users can sit around and do nothing about it. At some point, you may wanna do yourself a favor and retire. You know what I mean?”
Regardless of how people responded to the tragedy, one thing was clear. The destruction of Redwell city shook the world to its core.