Solar Flare Versus [Sci-fi. Superheroes. Cosmic horror. ]by
Volume 3 Issue 15: Cracks appear, they spiderweb.
3200 Reported Cases* 100 Reported dead.*
*Last reported numbers before the ICG halted their publication.
Disparate groups clashed today moments after a small speech given by ICG Chairman Jackson Shaw this LM. Shaw had been addressing a group who had begun demonstrating immediately outside Central One late last night once it became clear the ICG stopped publishing the numbers. Social media was in full meltdown mode throughout the Long Evening with stories of norms also allegedly catching this plague. Shaw denied that and stressed that everything was fine. Stan’s for the charismatic chairman also showed up, and soon, the two sides began hurling insults and harsh words at one another. Supposed anti-government agitators had infiltrated both sides and may have caused the first shot to be fired, but that’s just speculation. Anti-riot police rovers quelled the melee with military-grade tear gas and stun grenades that shorted those with bio-modifications such as AUGs. Two hundred people are currently hospitalized as of this video. And, no, they weren’t wearing masks or anything so. Anyway, good morning Saint Century.”
And That’s News !– LM Edition.
It was easy to feel claustrophobic inside these hazmat suits. Justine Ocampo hated hers so very much but wearing them had become mandatory in the lab over a month ago. This facility became a microcosm of the plague ravaging the outside. Justine often wondered if that was why they kept the place open. They had become an experiment unto themselves.
“We lost another batch today,” came a voice from behind. “All infected.”
She winced at the news and turned to find her colleague, Hikaru Santos, entering the room. It was a small area with a desk, computer equipment, and a one-way window that looked into what appeared to be a nursery. Hikaru’s features, hidden behind the fogged-up viewport of the helmet he wore, much like her own, betrayed his true feelings. A year ago, they were fresh-faced interns on a scientific adventure to reproduce OverHumans from scratch. Today they were the last people standing.
“Gresh,” she spits out. “It’s an endless cycle—I don’t think we’ll ever be clean. Never seen something so infectious.”
Hikaru nodded. “Decontaminate. Grow. Clean house. Repeat,” he offered.
“Do you ever ask yourself why they haven’t shut us down?”
“Don’t want to know, huh?”
“No,” he replied. “Kinda obvious anyway. Got another order, too, we need to set one aside cuz it's goin’ into the field. They want it to power the weird one.”
Justine bit her lip and looked back through the one-way glass. “How are you so blasé about this?”
“How aren’t you?”
She hated to admit that it was a good question. With all her time in front of the incinerator, one would think she would be beyond numb. It was the news from outside, combined with seeing most of her colleagues also fall sick and being forced to leave as the weeks went on. She wished there was more they could do here instead of this. Study the virus, figure it out, who knows, but neither of them were an epidemiologist. Hell, they were barely scientists.
“Okay,” Justine swallowed her existential dread. “Prep the chassis, and I guess…think the safe thing is to grow it inside?”
“We can decom the chamber before putting the specimen in…” Hikaru snapped his fingers, but inside gloved hands, they barely made a sound. “That could work; let's try it.”
“Yeah,” Justine continued to stare out through the glass. Beyond the mirror, all the tiny formally living fetuses stretched out like set-up dominos.
Kirkman Medical was an elite hospital for elite people. When Athena had told Roxanne that this was where Corina had been taken, she was utterly not surprised. Also not surprising was the amount of security she and Chris had to wade through. Outside and beyond the main entrance felt like a powder keg that had been lit. It was a small fire, but etched plainly on everyone's face was the knowledge and certainty that this was only just getting started.
The automated systems knew her well and would generally have just sent her on through, but she wasn’t alone. Chris—looking fabulous in their armor as far as Roxanne was concerned—had run the gamut of scans and automated questions that their head spun. That being said, Chris was taking this all in stride. Their first attempt at flying went well, and the joy on their face made Roxanne’s skin buzz. The happiness continued to wage war with guilt. The melee mushed into a sludge of numbness that did wonders for better and worse.
Roxanne waited patiently, leaning up against a cold white wall, and when that got old, she slid down into a crouch. She continued monitoring the news, using it for distraction; idle thoughts immediately turned to grief and made her feel useless. Millerton Bay appeared to be a total crap show as Pro-OH demonstrators clashed with law enforcement; she sighed heavily. A square-shaped metal cart filled with medicine glided on by just an inch off the ground, and Roxanne caught her own reflection.
She was 16 again in that second. She winced and felt hot suddenly; a tingling sensation crept up her arms and the back of her neck. So much had changed about her life, hair, outlook, and perception: everything but the uniform. The universe constantly cried out for a new balance—every minute ticked felt like the issue was being forced.
The legacy of the mantle powered her and fueled her; the lineage was everything. It was supposed to guide her, yet she constantly felt adrift, falling through uncharted territory. Roxanne held on to that uniform like a lifeline. As if everything would go back to how they were before she broke everything. If she waited long enough, everything would work itself out.
How’s that working out? Roxanne stared at the palms of her hands, at the two bands wrapped around her middle fingers. The vision of Enehvah and the skull pile reflect at her on her shimmering gauntlets. With a forward path shrouded in darkness, Roxanne realized it was time to throw away the last of her old self.
She shut her eyes and pictured the person she could be. The person Roxanne felt she needed to be. Such a person was bold and powerful, a clean break from all that came before. Her skin lit up. Atoms shifted and collided in the air; twisted molecules formed and morphed and built across her body, outward from her chest. She kept the symbol—the white sphere, surrounded at 8 points by white triangles. Black shoulder armor stretched across her collar and traps as orange-colored body armor cascaded over her torso, arms, and legs ending in simple black boots. Her hands were wrapped in black with orange armor pieces across the back of her hands, knuckles, and fingers.
“Rox?” Athena had entered the hallway, and a cup of coffee in her left hand was still smoking hot. She screamed at a high pitch and dropped the cup; pieces flew everywhere. Athena could not help it; she was just so thankful Roxanne was finally there. Small and quick, a cleaner bot zoomed out of its hole and made short work of sucking up the spilled liquid inside its cone-shaped body. Roxanne scrambled to her feet just in time to absorb a hug from the charging Athena. Roxanne welcomed it gladly. She could only imagine the teenager's feelings since she wasn’t far from that herself.
The charred kitchen floor flashed in her subconscious again.
Was that cruel?
Oh god, am I a monster? Roxanne dammed up the geyser of pain rushing through her body and set it to the side. Eventually, the two parted and held each other at arm's length, smiling softly.
“How is she?” Roxanne spoke first. “I’m sorry I took so long. It’s—it’s not great out there.” Contorted fingers stuck clutching at the air snuck up on her. She closed her eyes, confident that if she hadn’t, she would break down immediately. She felt Athena place a hand on her forearm.
“Hey, you okay?” Athena asked. Roxanne sniffed and brought her head upright. She took a single deep breath and opened her eyes, seemingly none the worse for wear.
“I’m fine,” she replied. “Tell me about Corina, is she…?”
“The doctor said something about her body shutting down to fight it,” Athena replied. “So, uh, that’s kind of good news, right?” Roxanne smiled and nodded, considering what “bad news” might have entailed. Athena continued talking, as she does:
“Before I forget, I must say not bad on the threads, though. What brought that on?”
“Sometimes growing up means a new look,” Roxanne said after thinking about it for a second or two. “You know?”
“Totally. Aunt Corina says it's important to change your look every so often; so….” Athena presented Roxanne with a double thumbs-up, and Roxanne smiled. Athena was infectious and kind of just what she needed right now.
“Where’s Captain Steel?” Roxanne asked. Athena puffed her cheeks at the question and leaned back against the wall.
“He went to go find that Spyda creep,” she shrugged and put her hands in her pockets. “That’s the guy Aunt Corina went after, right?”
“Right,” Roxanne pursed her lips and watched various feeds and data stream into her HUD. Azonne was trawling The Bleednet and feeding information back to her instantaneously. It felt like the world was falling apart in real-time. The denizens of Junktown had begun to block off entrance into the neighborhood for fear that the plague could “cross-species,” as it has rumored to have already. Roxanne wanted to scream. How did no one know it affected just normal humans? How?
She had half a mind to peel off an aspect of Azonne and dedicate it to answer that, but pressing matters required their full attention.
Roxanne, Spydalow is not bothering to hide his broadcast signal. If I’ve found him, no doubt Captain Steel has as well. Also, I like your new look as well.
“I should go help him,” she told Athena. “I want a piece of that guy myself.”
“Rox, there’s something else….” Athena bit her lip and squeezed Roxanne’s arm. “They say I have it…that my mom has it too.” Roxanne looked into Athena’s eyes and saw actual fear. This boundless 17-year-old, who could walk through steel walls on her off days, was scared of what the future might bring. Roxanne touched her arm back.
“You-you're not afraid?” Athena asked.
“My rings protect me,” Roxanne replied. “Even if they didn’t, I’m here for you.” Athena smiled, but that quickly faded away.
“Rox, if my mom has it then,” her voice trailed off, afraid to make the implication. Roxanne, stone-faced and tight-lipped, lowered her eyes. What Roxanne had seen…she ached at the thought of Athena having to see it herself. She looked up and kept up her game face.
“Where is your mom now?”
“With MJ,” Athena replied. “They said something about us being asymptomatic—I had to look that up.”
Startled, Roxanne looked behind her to see Chris approaching. They had decided to put a leather jacket over their uniform, and Roxanne couldn’t help but think all those wrong yet oh-so-right thoughts. Athena was startled by this and may have swooned as well.
“Okay, the questions, the poking, the prodding—all of that was annoying enough,” Chris had continued, speaking animatedly and using their hands for emphasis. “But having that dude bellowing in my head, how do you do it, Rox?”
“My AI? Like yours…? Azonne, right? It said its name was Ordlach, but….”
“Ordlach??” Roxanne’s mouth hung open less than an inch. Both she and Azonne had trouble parsing what they heard. The words each made sense, but putting them together didn’t lead to good results.
“What-what’s he saying…?” Roxanne stammered out. Both she and Azonne hated that that was their first question. They should have started with: How is that possible? Or even just…Why?
“He’s, like, big mad at you. First, because you just left the rings in your old pants pockets for, like, ever. Second, because someone who isn’t you used them, he had a plan or something; I tuned him out, to be honest,” and Chris opened and closed their hands like a mouth. “Oh! He also said you’re dumb because Jason and Sam were on a break…I didn’t get that one.”
Roxanne wondered if she was having a stroke.
Jason and Sam were the main characters in the “will they-wont they?” teen drama Jason’s Serenada. It was Roxanne’s favorite since she was a little girl, and anytime she was back on Izanami, she re-watched them all via VOD on the official site as visual and audio comfort food. Suffice it to say she had strong opinions about Jason and Sam. Though strong or unreasonable—who could tell?
She blinked a few times, hoping the next one would help things make sense.
“…We’ll talk about this later.”
Seventeen years ago, Mike Masterson—Captain Steel—buried his family. His wife, unborn children, and little sister. Murdered at the hands of an enemy he had made with his fists. Such a fact was a giant neon sign telling him he was doing more harm than good as the public-facing Greatest Hero In The Universe. In retrospect, his sister had had a more positive impact on the galaxy than he ever really had or could.
She helped build new colonies, brought food to the less fortunate just outside of known space, and even ran a shelter for animals whose owners ended up lost in space. She cared about the rights and plights of OverHumans and Norms alike and often begged him to show the same concern rather than just fighting for the status quo and throwing someone not all that different from him in jail.
Before she died, he laughed at her for taking things so seriously and for being so militant about something that wasn’t such a big deal. That she was dead because of how he chose to live became impossible to escape. She was everything he wished he could be instead of what he was, a tool of the status quo.
A status quo that got her killed.
He first hit the farthest reaches of space, absent anything better to do with his grief. In retrospect, it was self-important soul searching; what he needed to do had been clear as day, and at first, he was afraid of it. But this Captain Steel returned to Izanami vowing to lift others so they could simply live with dignity. His sister knew that this made an actual tangible impact more than any ridiculous villain whose face he had caved in, but it took her death for him to realize it.
This Captain Steel became a champion against OveHuman exploitation. This Captain Steel had even refused to fight another OH for some time. Eventually, his advocacy became a solid political movement that ushered in new laws and freedoms for his people. Alone, after long nights, he’d like to think his sister would have been proud of how things turned out.
It made slipping back into the old status quo in this context…difficult. It felt like putting on old clothes you had discarded because they didn’t fit quite right anymore, and you remembered why you threw them down in the first place. This Captain Steel smiled and spoke as his old self did. It made sense to do it in context, even if it made his muscles twitch. The rest of it was, comparatively, almost effortless.
Picking up with his sister as if they’d never missed a beat.
Fostering a relationship with his children, whose lives he had only imagined for the last decade.
The love in Danielle's eyes was…same as his last memory. Captain Steel had to admit that it was so easy that, over time, he started to enjoy it. And that became the rub. In the back of his mind was a nagging itch, a feeling that couldn’t fade no matter how much he wished it would.
You see, this Captain Steel kept waiting for the plug to be pulled at any moment. In truth, immediately after his first meeting with Lady Steel and the young woman called Solar Flare, he had concluded that this had to be a dream. A trap—no, prison—no doubt hatched by one of his greatest foes.
Likely someone from the Norm factions who always resented his late-stage advocacy for OverHumans. He had become uncompromising in his sister's memory, which undoubtedly led to a long line of antagonists. But who? It didn’t matter. He had resolved to play along to the end. They’d reveal themselves in time, or the illusion would eventually shatter as they often did.
Either way, the result would be the same: Captain Steel will have stopped the villain and perhaps ended some kind of crisis. Then it was back to his life, the never-ending battle. Cap stiffened in anger. Getting a small taste of what could have been was cruel, and he pitied whoever was behind this. Cool air slid past his thick forehead as Captain Steel flew inches above the cloud banks. He continued on in deep thought as he crossed the vastness between Saint Century and Millerton Bay, the ground below alternating between biomes.
Snow-covered mountains lie to the west. Behind him was the colossal Chandra desert; ahead were the saline rainforests that bordered the bay. Questions remained for him still even after deciding this was a game. Questions that didn’t precisely jar with the scenario but were quickly ignorable; for the moment. Why was he stronger? What captor would risk such a thing?
Additionally, this was undoubtedly thus far more elaborate and personal a trap than any foe of his had capacity for before. All of it screamed new player, but just how new was the question that resonated. Such a foe would have to know much about Captain Steel’s private wants and fears to concoct such an extravagant fantasy, and for what? All just to torture him? Still, even that was more believable than being sucked into a parallel universe as far as he was concerned. Captain Steel had seen and done a lot; crossing The Bleed was the one thing everyone agreed was impossible.
So he returned to square one: a vast prison. It had to be. Again, he vowed to see this to the end just as the city of Millerton Bay came into view. With his enhanced vision, he scanned the entire peninsula and saw scattered violence had also taken hold here. The word that the disease has jumped species and affected norms has spread as fast as the illness itself; no one has taken it well. There appeared to be three factions forming across the city:
The first group blamed OHs for making them sick and attempted to form possies to round them up into a single location; “peacefully.” The second consisted of OHs and their sympathizers, tired of cow-towing to the mob and their prejudices. Cap suspected that was the group he was meant to identify with, perhaps to lead him further into the dream, nearly impossible to ignore. He certainly did empathize; the things he had seen in his time here had even enraged him.
Bizarrely there was a 3rd faction, a seemingly pro-government group that claimed all of it was a hoax to sow distrust in the leaders and institutions, especially Jackson Shaw. These people somehow believed it wasn’t that bad and that the media was hyping it up because Shaw was a polarizing figure, and this wasn’t the first time he and his family had been treated like this.
This faction gave Captain Steel pause. The Shaw family was not a part of any Izanami history he could remember, and Jackson Shaw didn’t exist for Cap until he awoke here. Was this the clue he had been searching for? Was he nearing the end? Captain Steel pressed on into the city. The one known as Spdalow—another anomaly to him—had been quietly broadcasting for the last two hours, but it was just a black screen.
Cap had been keeping an eye on the feed and his chat room via his AUG implant, which somehow still worked here and only further strengthened his working thesis. The now unmoderated chat had become a wild west of bots and the last of the true believers who fancied themselves the last line of defense against the spam. Like Shaw, Spyda had his followers, but unlike Shaw, they didn’t seem to worship him. That said, the diehards still clung to the hope that Spydalow would drop “the proof” any minute now…
Cap approached the building and scanned for anything amiss. Just the usual chaos. Spyda’s hovel was situated on the 8th floor of a 20-story decayed apartment complex. A floor below that, a child sat alone playing on a VR system with a million of his faceless digital friends. Two stories above, a husband and wife sat across from each other in contempt. Tonight was the same, just as every night, for these people.
Captain Steel landed at street level, just a few feet from the stone stairs leading up to the complex's main entrance. Trash swept across the concrete streets while distant childlike wails rose toward the skyline. He felt this was for show, a ruse simply for his benefit by whoever was behind this prison. He walked up the steps, past the trash bundled up on every other step, through the steel double doors, and up the inner staircase.
There was no elevator.
He looked up and saw an endless amount of stairs stretched upward; he considered flying. Dust swirled around his feet as the hands of gravity gently released their hold. A thought later, he was at the 8th level while reality bulged and sent debris, papers, dirt, and rocks upward violently. Down a hallway, he approached a door, and it was dirty and greasy.
Across the hall, a mousey-looking woman shut their door at just the slightest glance. His right hand flew forward, and his fingers dug into the groove that separated the door from the wall. He pulled, and the door tore off its tracks like aluminum foil.
A tornado had hit the room. Broken shelves and garbage lined the floors. At the center, splayed out in a chair, looked like Spydalow. His head lolled back toward the floor, his eyes were in the back of his head, and his body was facing a beat-up analog terminal. Cap scanned him; he was still alive, but the disease ran rampant. Cap approached and felt for a pulse anyway, just to confirm. Cap studied his face:
He looked no older than 20, all-natural too. Blood pooled around Spyda’s sockets and bubbled just out the corners of his mouth; Cap felt an ice-cold chill rumble down his back. The scenario affected him like nothing he had ever experienced before, and he wondered how much more he could realistically endure. Cap looked over the desk the terminal sat on; candy wrappers and quickmeal pouches formed a lovely nest around it.
A note was stuck to the screen with a big red thumbprint in the top corner, and Cap snatched it. It read:
Cap glanced up at the screen; an unplayed video filled the real estate with a large play button at the center. He saw the nub within the keyboard and manipulated the cursor so that the video would play. Nothing happened after 10 seconds, but a young female face filled the screen. She backed up and offered a half-body view of her frame; she had dirty strawberry-blond hair tied behind her head in a messy bun.
“I’m doing this to protect myself,” she said. She sat on a metal stool in what looked like an academic office with stacks and rows of large tombs that hadn’t been read in probably a decade. “Because it’ll be denied, because why wouldn’t it be?”
Captain Steel furrowed his brow. He was stuck in that place mentally where half his brain accepted what he was seeing while the other side continued to ask if he was an idiot. She continued:
“The OverHuman population had exploded within the last twenty to twenty-five years, and we were tasked with finding a way to cull it. Of course, they wanted to be able to claim it was just nature, so that’s why I was brought aboard. Because I guess, when it comes to bioterror, I’m kind of the king shit and…crap, I should have said my name first, shouldn’t I?” The woman sighed, composed herself briefly, and brushed a rebellious strand away from her face. She began again:
“My name is Dr. Abigail Olsen, my ICG badge number is 550123. I was brought in to see what could be done to the rising OH population without raising too many eyebrows. This wasn’t an impossible task. We—I had done something similar on many planets for non-human species as an alternative to conflict and war, so it didn’t take much modification of my work to have the process work on OverHumans.
“The problem began when it became clear that it did its job too well; infection to symptoms to death was quicker than I had anticipated. Too fast of a spread, and your plausible deniability goes out the window. We can see it out there now. In addition to all that, the virus was undetectable for the first week. No test we had could find it, and, to be blunt, I had thought we had failed. Rather than shut it down and start over, as I had suggested, I was—we were instructed to keep going. It could be ‘managed,’ I was told”
Dr. Olsen reached to her left and produced a medium-sized glass of water. She brought it to her lips and sipped at it, thankfully. When finished, she wiped her mouth on the back of her lab coat sleeve and cleared her throat.
“And, you know, maybe it could have been? But then a member of the team began showing symptoms…
“I’d never seen something ravage a human body so fast. Under a microscope, the mutation is virtually identical, almost as if it's simply supercharged. Perhaps a side effect of the bioengineering?” Abigail shook her head. Artifacts on the video obscured her face for the briefest of seconds. She continued:
“Anyway, that’s what shut us down. Temporarily. We were separated and placed into quarantine while hazmat teams swept the lab. Specimens, test subjects, all of it removed and dumped; this place was scrubbed clean. And yes, dumped. Not burned, dumped. They dumped them at Mad City prison. I know this because I was later on consulted on if the disease could still be used safely since it at least, and I quote, ‘basically worked.’ I said, sure.”
“They said that they had dumped some of the bodies nearby and wished to track how it would spread in a semi-controlled/uncontrolled environment and, oh god, I wish I were kidding. They asked me if I wanted to help monitor it but in a way where you’re not being asked. It didn’t work, as we can all see.”
Abigail stared down, presumably at the floor. Captain Steel’s eyes locked on to the screen; he felt hot. His eyes darted around the room, and he made a note of every molecule and atom in the air, a calming technique he had picked up ages ago. His fist tightened; leather rubbed against leather and cut through the silence.
“This lab was re-activated, tasked with developing a cure while…well, you see it. The gas lighting, the lies. We go through hundreds of embryo specimens an hour, and we’re no closer. For the past few days, emails sit unanswered, and calls are not taken…I look on the net and see why. Most of my staff have left, and only one of our sister sites is still at work, though I couldn’t say whether they were any closer than us; I doubt it. There may never be a cure,” Elizabeth suddenly looked up. Her eyes were bloodshot; drooping strands of red rolled across her cheekbones.
“If this is my last legacy,” she continued. “Then I wanted to get the truth on record at least. Whoever sees this, whenever you see this: I’m sorry.”
Cap's fist flew through the air between the seconds and connected with the top of the terminal. It made a hearty crunch under the force and pressure generated by his casually unleashed might. The circuitry's last gasps had the smell of ozone but passed his nostrils unnoticed. All his buttons pushed, he murmured under his breath:
“Too far, this is too far,” he repeated the statement 4 more times. His breath was shallow, and his mouth felt clammy. His mind was consumed by the cruelty of what he had heard, so he muttered again:
“No more…no more!” A shadow filled the doorway behind him, blocking out the light from the hallway. He tensed and spun around, eyes glowing; plasma vision primed.
“Captain Steel?” the shadow said before stepping forward. It was the woman, Roxanne, wearing a different uniform, but he recognized her face easily enough. Or was this a glitch that he wasn’t supposed to notice? Had she always worn that? She’s part of the sim, he thought. She can’t be trusted.
“Are you okay?” she asked. Cap felt his spine stiffen, but he allowed his face to go soft.
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Sam Sanchez is an artist and writer from NYC currently residing in the mid-west. He likes to create superhero science fiction and dabbles in cosmic horror every once and a while.
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