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By A. Lee Martinez | Published: January 28, 2016
The government didn’t approve of superheroes. Most superheroes, aside from the occasional sentient robot or alien visitor, were only human. Nobody with any sense would be excited about giving the Average Joe the power to shoot lasers from his eyes or teleport across the universe. Given their druthers, the government would’ve probably depowered ever superhuman they came across and lock up those they couldn’t. For the greater good, or so they’d say.
The idea was still floated now and then by some senator or city council member looking to make a name for themselves. Some were probably sincerely worried. Most were out to score votes off of public fear. And they could get far on the anti-superhero ticket until some evil genius with a phantom legion or conqueror aliens appeared and made short work of the army and whatever conventional defenses were available. Then it was up to us, the superheroes, to save the day.
Most people with superpowers didn’t take up heroing, and for those people, life went on as normal. Maybe Fran’s ability to generate fire from her hands made family barbecues a little easier, and I’d heard there was a guy who could control animals with his mind who was a heck of a dog catcher. But as long as they minded their own business, they were allowed to live their lives like any regular citizen.
But for us superheroes, the government wanted at least the appearance of some control, and that was why we had to get licenses. Considering how many times I’d saved the city and even the world on occasion, you would think they’d speed up the process. Give us a special “Superheroes Only” express line. But they made us wait in line at the DMV like everyone else, and it wasn’t by accident. Even the most invulnerable superhuman was powerless against government bureaucracy, a little reminder of our limitations.
Dementra, Warrior Queen of Galadron, sat beside me in the hard plastic chairs. She glanced at the lighted sign that showed the current number being served. “Are you up soon?”
I held up my slip of paper for her to read, but she’d yet to master earth numbers. She still got her fives and sevens confused. “Soon,” I lied.
I didn’t know for certain it was a lie. The sign wasn’t predictable. Numbers would scroll by quickly, only to freeze so long one had to assume the sign had broken, and we were all stuck here until the proper paperwork for a replacement went through or the universe succumbed to heat death. Whichever came first.
Dementra fidgeted. She hated stuff like this. On Galadron, government was a streamlined series of fights. Want a driver’s license? Punch a space bear. Registering to vote? Wrestle a six-armed gladiator. Have a complaint about your senator? Battle to the death. It was a harsh world, but it had its upsides.
“You didn’t have to come,” I said.
“As your boon compatriot, it is my duty to aid you in all warrior obligations.” She slouched in her chair. “Also, I had nothing better to do today.”
The number sign clicked backwards. I thought I caught some of the clerks giving me the eye. A lot of clerks didn’t like processing hero licenses. More paperwork than normal. I got the feeling they were putting me off. Normally they couldn’t tell I was a superhero, but the bubble gum pink space Amazon beside me, even wearing a Mickey Mouse tank top and some torn jeans, wasn’t great for blending in.
Eventually, my number was up. I gave the clerk my name and handed him my license. He scanned it.
“Class A Superhuman Emergency Involvement,” he said, more to himself than me. “We don’t get many of these.” He typed a few things into his computer. “Powers?”
“Isn’t that already in the system?” I asked.
He didn’t take his eyes off the screen. “We need to ask. For confirmation.”
“Super strength, Category One,” I said. “Limited invulnerability.”
He adjusted his glasses. “Limited how?”
“It’s not in the system?”
He frowned, annoyed by the situation as much as I was. “Confirmation.”
I leaned closer and whispered. It wasn’t as if the information was secret, but what superhero liked announcing her weakness to the world? “Solar radiation.”
“You’re vulnerable to sunlight?”
“Not vulnerable,” I said. “It’s not like it can kill me. I mean, I guess it could if I spent my days tanning. I’m not weak to it. I’m just not unusually resistant to it.”
He nodded. “Are you, or have you ever been to the best of your knowledge, radioactive?”
“Do you emanate any sort of psychic energy field that could pose a public health risk?”
“Have you accidentally or intentionally caused undue damage to public or private property through use of your unique abilities?”
“Have all these incidents been reported to the appropriate parties?”
“Do you ever feel an overwhelming desire to destroy all those who oppose you and if so, have you sought appropriate psychological counseling for these urges?”
“No, you haven’t felt these urges. Or no, you haven’t sought counseling?”
Stuff like this was why people became supervillains. “No urges,” I lied, and he didn’t call me out on it.
“Have you been to outer space, the center of the Earth, any unknowable dimensions, or temporally displaced in the last year? And if so, were your vaccinations up to date at the time?”
“Yes and yes.”
“It says here your archenemy is Strongobot, the strongest robot in the world. Is this all?”
He said it with judgment. Like I’d screwed up somewhere by not being important enough to have more bad guys dedicated to my destruction.
“Do you have any reason to believe your archvillain will pose an undue threat to the city by your residency here?”
And so on it went. Question after question. I’d glance to Dementra now and then. She amused herself by playing with several children stuck here. Kids loved her. She might have been a savage alien warrior, but she had a way with kids. She caused a teddy bear and doll to telekinetically dance for the amusement of the children and grateful parents were happy for the distraction.
“Eye color?” asked the clerk.
“Brown,” I said, relieved. It was always the last question.
“All right then. I’ll need you to step to the right so that we can take your photo.”
When getting my first license, I did my best to look heroic. Steely eyed, determined, serious. Now I’d just settle for one where I wasn’t blinking.
He snapped the photo. The machine spit out a laminated piece of plastic that he handed to me. “Thank you. Have a pleasant day.”
But he was already done with me and didn’t offer so much as a parting glance.
Dementra gave the children some hugs, and we were out the door.
I handed her the license. I hadn’t the courage to look at it myself yet. “How’s it look?”
“Good.” She squinted. “Though I think there’s a bit of broccoli in your teeth.”
“Ah, damn it.” I picked the speck from my teeth and sighed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Some boon compatriot you are.”
I tucked the license in my pocket and breathed deep the fresh air of freedom. Free for another year, and there was always the possibility that I’d be killed by a mutant dinosaur or a solar death ray before renewal came around again. It wasn’t likely, but optimism was all part of the superhero game.
By A. Lee Martinez | Published: January 14, 2016
Time for another installment of my sporadic yet insightful posts on writing and storytelling.
In the past, I’ve commented on the dangers of “Realism” in fiction. Especially that brand of negative grimdark that so many people, both artists and audience, equate with realism. It seems that realism will be used to justify all kinds of unpleasantness in a story while rarely is it invoked for a positive effect. Sure, a person might get hit by a car on the way to reconcile with their one true love, but it’s also entirely possible for that same character to instead win the lottery. Realism is a handy tool for getting a character into and out of trouble and advancing a plot in any way the storyteller is too lazy to justify.
By A. Lee Martinez | Published: January 12, 2016
In celebration of A. LEE MARTINEZ APPRECIATION WEEK!!, a new Life in Rockwood short:
There were secrets in Rockwood, and nobody knew them all.
Mayor Ortega knew only one, but it was the worst one. It came with the job, and he would’ve never run for office if he’d known in advance. Now he had to live with it.
Elena helped him with his tie. “Honestly, Julio, you should’ve learned how to do this by now.”
She sounded annoyed, but she was smiling. She loved taking care of him, especially the small things. Tying ties and picking fuzz of his jacket, making sure his hair was combed to her liking and keeping an eye on his nose hairs.
“We’re going to be late,” she said.
“They can’t start without me,” he said. “I’m the Mayor.”
She took his head in her hand and kissed him. “And a handsome one at that.”
She returned to the bathroom to apply her makeup. She didn’t need it. He loved ever wrinkle, every pound she’d put on over the years. They were the trophies of a life together.
“I’ll be back, Elena,” he said. “I have to do something.”
“We’ll be late,” she said, though she was the one not ready. He didn’t point that out.
“It won’t take long.”
He slipped out of the house while her attention was focused on mascara. He drove down the dusty road. The Founders’ Day celebration started at dusk, and he had an hour or so.
He wondered if it was worth it. Rockwood, a patch of forsaken desert in the middle of nowhere, a place where the dead were restless and the living were often more restless. Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. He hadn’t made up his mind as he pulled up to the Schneider’s trailer.
The door opened before he could honk. Buddy Schneider and Tourmaline came out. Buddy’s ill-fitting suit was wrinkled, and his tie was askew. Tourmaline wore an old flannel robe that covered her.
“Front seat or back?” asked Buddy.
“Doesn’t matter,” replied the Julio.
Tourmaline sat in back. She was a plain girl. Not ugly, but not one to turn heads either. Buddy leaned in the window and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “What must be done . . . ”
“Must be done,” she finished. She smiled, “I love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too.” He caressed her hair. He might start crying. God, Julio hoped there wouldn’t be crying.
“Buddy, we’re on a schedule here,” he said.
“Sure. See you at the festival, Mayor.”
Julio nodded and drove away. He stared at the road ahead and did his damnedest to not look at the girl in the back. That’s how he thought of her. The girl. She had no name. Born with but one purpose.
It wasn’t worth it.
But damned if he wasn’t strong enough to stop himself. Rockwood might not have been much, but it and its citizens were his responsibility. It had to be done. They rode in silence, and even if he didn’t look at her, he could see Tourmaline with her chin tucked down, looking at nothing.
The old mine had been boarded up ages ago. Julio pried away a few of the planks so that they could go in. He’d forgotten his flashlight, but Tourmaline had the foresight to bring one. He’d brought a map, but she knew the way. She led him deeper into the cold, cruel earth, and he wondered why he was here at all. Someone had to witness it.
They reached the ancient antechamber. Statues of broken, twisted gods best forgotten decorated the walls. The whole place stank of mildew and brimstone, and a hot wind swirled around them. Julio had never been here before. The sacrifice was only demanded once every twenty-one years. It was just his luck to be Mayor when it came due.
She undid the robe. He looked away, expecting her to be nude, but she was wearing a modest one-piece swimsuit. He wondered if that made a difference. She’d probably know. She’d been raised her whole life for this moment.
She sat on the altar in the center of the room, and they waited.
They didn’t wait long.
“Who brings the sacrifice?” asked a creaky voice from nowhere and everywhere at once.
“I do,” he said.
“And does she come willingly?”
“I do,” she said.
“And in exchange for her purity, we shall refrain from destroying your town. A most fair bargain, is it not?”
“It is,” they said together.
Tourmaline laid down on the altar, and a thing emerged from the darkness at the far end of the chamber. It was long and thin and pale. Vaguely humanoid, but then again, vaguely not. To describe it further would require the Mayor to look directly at it, and he knew to do so would drive him irreversibly mad.
The horrible god approached the altar. Chuckling, it reached out with its long claws and stroked Tourmaline’s cheek. Its hand burst into flames, and it howled.
“This girl is not pure,” it hissed. “What treachery is this?”
“She is, I swear,” said the Mayor. “Tell him.”
Tourmaline sat up. “Well, they’re might have been some hand stuff, but I didn’t think that counted. Maybe some mouth stuff too. But, like, only once or twice. Maybe three times.”
The chamber rumbled. “You dare betray the pact?”
“Not me!” said the Mayor. “I didn’t know! Blame MTV! Blame the internet!”
The secret god of Rockwood roared. A statue fell over and shattered into pieces.
“You shall suffer eternally for this, fool. You and every mortal above shall writhe in agony as I devour their souls for this failure.” The god cackled.
Tourmaline punched the thing in its sort-of-face. It sort of exploded and fell to the ground.
“You dare touch me! You, impure whore of–”
The kicked it, and it whimpered like a wounded puppy.
“Fuck you,” she said, “And fuck your antiquated view of sexuality.”
She stomped on the god’s back and ground her heel into its back. The thing, once terrifying, was nothing now. Live by the virgin sacrifice, die by it, guessed the Mayor. The thing withered and shrank away until it was nothing.
Tourmaline and the Mayor left the antechamber behind. The moment they exited the cave, it collapsed.
They drove back. Tourmaline sat in the front this time.
“Hand stuff, huh?” asked Julio.
She shrugged. “Might have been some more stuff too. Don’t tell my dad.”
“Oh, I don’t think he’ll mind,” said the Julio.
Chuckling, they left the forgotten gods and their impotent demands behind.
By A. Lee Martinez | Published: January 8, 2016
As part of my regularly scheduled posting, Friday is Stuff I’ve Written Day. It’ll be a chance to post something I’m working, something I’ve written a while ago, something I’m thinking about writing, something I just scribbled out on a quiet day. Writing is a strange process, so some of these pieces might be complete stories and others might just be fragments I found interesting enough to share.
This is possibly the beginning of a novella, possibly just something I wrote for my own amusement. Regardless, I hope you enjoy it.