Reluctant Hero by Dean Hardage
West Coast Eisteddfod Online Short Story Competition 2017
“Can he do it?” asked the black masked and caped figure sitting in front of the screen.
“He’s the only one who has a chance,” answered the other figure, also caped but clad in bright blue and red.
“Even you?” the rough voice of the first watcher asked with just a bit of incredulity.
“Even me,” said the other with no hint of any emotion. “I would cause more damage than I’d prevent if I even made the attempt.”
“Is he really that powerful? He’s never done anything like this.”
“You’ve seen the results of the tests. The ones he would let us perform, anyway. You even designed some of them. He could probably shift the Earth in its orbit if he let himself. He keeps it under such strict control both consciously and unconsciously that he only manifests a tiny portion of what he’s capable of.”
Despite his reputation of being unafraid of anything, masked observer shuddered inwardly. He’d seen some of what the object of their conversation had done with that tiny portion and that kind of power without limit could shatter the world.
“How did you convince him to try?” the blue and red suited figure asked.
“I showed him this,” replied the masked man and touched a control that changed the image on the screen.
The other figure was taken aback by the image but understood exactly why their comrade had agreed to attempt the impossible task before him.
“That was cruel.”
The image was once again switched to the screen that graphically displayed the location of the only other entity besides the brightly clad person watching capable of flying through the vacuum of space without a suit even for a short time. The dot that indicated his position approached the upper atmosphere directly above the eye of the most massive hurricane in recorded history. His mission: stop it.
He called himself Mass because mass bends spacetime and that was his unique power. He could alter the very structure of spacetime with only a thought, allowing him to increase gravity, decrease it, or even reverse it. He’d learned how to use it as both a shield and a weapon but used it only as often as he had to to save lives.
He didn’t know how he had come to have it, this so-called superpower. His parents and their parents had been normal people so he had decided he must be some kind of mutant. He had realized early in life that he was different and could not only manipulate the fabric of reality but sense it directly as well. He knew things he shouldn’t know, could do things that he shouldn’t be able to do and he got a lot of sideways glances from those around him. He knew he had to make that stop so he learned to hide his abilities.
He’d lived like that for a long time, hiding in plain sight and occasionally using his abilities when he could be sure no one could possibly know it was him. He’d kept his powers to himself until something had happened that made it impossible for him to continue.
September 11, 2001. Hijacked airplanes flew into the World Trade Towers killing thousands while a stunned nation watched. He had seen it too, watched transfixed as first responders risked their lives to try to save every life possible. He realized that his powers could have saved not all, but many of those who perished that day. Out of abysmal shame and sadness had crystallized a purpose. He became something that he’d never pictured himself as, a ‘superhero’.
Using his abilities, he generated wealth in the form of gemstones created by the immense pressures he could generate on common materials like carbon and corundum. He’d discretely built a headquarters from which he could monitor news, emergency frequencies, and all other forms of media. His profession as an electronic technician had come in handy, making it unnecessary to hire people to install the complex equipment needed to turn the old warehouse into a base of operations. From this ordinary seeming group of buildings, he had launched a campaign to help. He didn’t fight crime. He left that to the blue-suited alien and Metropolis and the masked vigilante with all the gadgets and the fancy car in Gotham. He only intervened when criminal action threatened life.
He had tried to remain in the shadows but inevitably stories of the people he had saved began to leak out and spread on social media. A kind of urban legend had developed around him, a silent, somehow sad guardian angel that appeared from nowhere to help only to disappear just as quickly. This had suited him and it had been the norm until a couple of years later.
He’d returned to his base only to realize he wasn’t alone even before he’d touched down on the roof. No one was visible but his spatial senses told him two people were concealed in the maze of pipes and machinery remaining from the structure’s industrial past. One seemed to be human but the other was something different. They had revealed themselves and invited him to join them. He’d turned them down.
That was the first step to where he was now. While he had not become one of their group, he had been discovered and stayed on their radar. He’d met with them a few times, endured a few tests to try and quantify his power, offered to help when he could. Finally, just a few hours ago, he’d been summoned to their orbiting base.
“I’m not going to try to sugarcoat this. We need you,” stated the masked figure who’d first met him.
“Ok, what am I supposed to do? Let’s get at it so I can get back.”
“Not so fast. You need to know what you’re getting into. Follow me.”
Bemused and now concerned, Mass followed his host through the station’s passages to a large room with walls covered in screens and equipment, the far wall dominated by a giant screen showing an image of Earth. Near the bottom of the screen he could see the whirling image of a storm rampaging through the Caribbean.
“Irma,” he muttered.
“That’s right, and that’s why we need you.”
Shocked, Mass’ eyes snapped up to those behind the mask.
“You’re insane. No one can stop that, not even your alien friend.”
“According to what we know, you can. You just have to use your power at the level you’re capable of.”
“I’m not capable of that, no matter what you think. There’s no telling what would happen if I tried. I destroyed an entire mountain doing that once before.”
“Exactly,” countered his guest. “You have untapped power you’ve never dreamed of. We know you could do this if you use it.”
“Just for the sake of argument, how? I couldn’t create a counter-vortex that size.”
“That would be a bad idea. What you can do is affect the gravity in and around the eye, increase the atmospheric pressure, cause it to collapse. It will still rain but the winds would die down and the storm would dissipate before it makes another landfall.”
“Why now? Why didn’t you call me before?” Mass demanded angrily. “I might have had a real shot if I’d gotten to it as a depression.”
“We didn’t know what it was going to do. Marvin was bad enough and when this thing went Category 5 we were contacted to see if we could do something. You’re our only chance.”
“No,” came the flat answer. “I’m not going to risk my own life and the lives of anyone in the area.”
An agonized expression twisted his features into a rictus of emotional agony.
“Don’t you see?” he plead, his voice nearly inaudible. “I could kill thousands.”
“Irma will kill thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, if you don’t try.”
His host paused, thinking for a moment as Mass stood paralyzed by the impossible choice before him. He turned to a nearby screen and keyboard, searching through images until he found the one he sought.
“You can do what you have always said you wanted to, save lives. Or you can do nothing and let more of this happen.”
Mass looked up at the screen and fell to his knees. Video of one of the islands the monster storm had already struck was playing. The island nation was already impoverished and had been unable to take any real measures and bodies of the dead lay strewn about along with the refuse that had been their homes. The camera zoomed in on one tableau and a cry of horrible anguish was wrenched from him. A child lay clinging to her parents, all three dead and wearing expressions of horror at what had taken their lives. No super villain, no alien invasion, not even another human being with a gun or knife. Wind, the ferociously whirling air of the storm had been the impersonal murderer of this small family.
“All right,” he muttered. “When do I go?”
“In an hour it will be over the water again. That’s the best place for you to work without risk of collateral damage.”
“You can rest until I take you in.”
“You won’t have to take me in. I can get there on my own.”
“Are you sure?”
“You don’t know everything about me. I can do it.”
Now he hovered several hundred feet above the ocean surface, the air deceptively calm and the sun shining through the clouds. He adjusted his personal gravity so he was moving in the same direction as the eye and would remain centered for several hours if necessary. Closing his eyes, he reached out with his spatial senses further and further, pushing them well beyond any point he’d ever attempted. His heart beat faster and his respiration grew rapid as his perceptions extended more and more and finally reached the eye wall and beyond.
He stretched his senses upward, sensing, grasping, and fully understanding the volume of space he was going to manipulate. He fought the surges in perception, the nearly overwhelming torrent of information he was trying to process and organize. He stabilized the model he had managed to build in his mind and made minor changes to test his control and effects of his touch on the continuum. A voice in his ear urged him to hurry. He ignored it, knowing just how much worse things could be if he failed. He became less and less aware of the world around him as he sank further and further into his mental construct.
The two individuals watching with deep concern from far above noted a change in some of their readings. The barometric pressure in the eye ticked slightly upward, a small but significant change that was repeated a moment later and kept repeating until it was near one atmosphere, normal for sea level. Wind speeds dropped in an incredibly short time and the storm began to disorganize.
“You’ve done it,” the brightly clad figure said into a transmitter.
There was no answer except a sigh of exhaustion and the sound of a body splashing into the water over the speakers before the signal dropped off. The blue clad figure left the station ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ and rocketed toward where Mass had last been detected. His own special abilities allowed him to find the man unconscious, submerged and drifting downward before pulling him from the surf and flying him to land at incredible speed.
Some weeks later Mass was back in his base when someone or something banged on the heavy steel door securing the entrance. A glance at one monitor revealed the identity of his visitors and he almost chose not to answer before realizing they could enter without his permission if they chose. He pressed the control that opened the thick portal and allowed them to walk in.
“We’ve been trying to reach you,” said the masked figure.”
“I turned off my cell.”
“There are some people who would like to thank you,” interjected his companion, the one that had plucked him from the ocean and taken him for medical assistance.
“Tell them they’re welcome. Anything else?”
“We want to run some tests. What you did was nothing short of a miracle.”
“Nope. We’ve already been through that.”
“Alright, I guess there’s just one more thing.”
“What’s that?” Mass asked when the masked figure handed him something.
“Just a little token of someone’s gratitude.”
Mass looked at what he’d been handed. It was a watercolor drawing of a figure in silver floating in the air telling a storm cloud with an angry face to go away. Attached to the bottom of the sheet was a small photo of a group of children, smiling at the camera.
“Their school was just about to be washed away when the rain stopped. Someone on the island got a glimpse of you before you fell. They sent this to us, thinking it was a member.”
Mass’s eyes filled with tears, his emotions dissolving and uncoiling in his chest for the first time since he’d returned.
“Thanks. Now can you please go away and let me get on with my job?”
The visitors exchanged a look and turned to leave. Once they were out the door the blue-clad man said, “Do you think he’ll ever help us out again?”
“Yes, he will. He can’t help himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s a hero.”
updated by @americymru: 11/28/17 04:56:59PM