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My name is Derek Battle, and I'm a superhero.

...and I have no idea where I am right now.

One minute, I was asleep, I guess, and the next, I'm wide awake and standing in the middle of an airbase surrounded by a lot of disassembled jets. And I've kinda got a bad feeling that I'm the guy who wrecked all these planes.

There are a series of high-pitched whistles, followed by four whipcracks, and I'm surrounded by four other superspeedsters.

"Greetings, fellow speedsters," says Nanosecond. "I hope someone has a good explanation for what we're doing, because I don't have a single clue."

"Holy crap, look at all you guys!" says Mach-10. "What the hell is going on out here?!"

"Wow, I've had some pretty heavy blackouts," says the Phenom. "But this is one for the record books."

"Well, hi, gang," says Roadrunner. "GPS says we're near Tacoma, Washington. Anyone have any clue why we've been tearing McChord AFB apart?"

This all took place in about a twentieth of a second. Speedster conversations are efficient.

"Technically, it's just McChord Field now," says Nanosecond.

"Man, stuff like that is why your Q scores are so low," groans Phenom.

I should introduce everyone.

Nanosecond is the guy in navy blue and silver. Blake Bradford, ex-FBI, about as straitlaced as anyone can get. Rumor has it that he's faster than Blitz was, which may be why he never got an invitation to join the Assembly of Order.

The gal with the way-too-damn-garish green and purple costume and the shock of orange dyed in her hair is Roadrunner. Veronica Valdez, professional hero and media celebrity. Regular guest on Conan, presented an award with Jack Black at last year's Emmys. Good hero, but too much time on TV makes her act silly sometimes.

The Phenom is the dude in the blue and yellow suit with the corny sunshades. His real name's Sebastian Maxwell, and he'd love to be as famous as Roadrunner, but he doesn't have any charisma in front of the cameras. Doesn't stop him from trying to live the superstar lifestyle.

Mach-10 is the girl wearing blue and green. Mindy Fincher, college student. Fairly new to the hero biz and nervous as hell, but she's learning fast. Her twin sister has powers, too -- not superspeed, but energy absorption and superstrength -- and they have that weird twin telepathy thing going, so they argue with each other sometimes where you can't hear 'em.

Oh, and I'm the Express.

"We've got incoming spaceships," says Roadrunner.

Sure enough, at least a dozen coming over the horizon. Gliding at us like a bunch of slimy black and gold beetles.

"Galactic Scimitar Battlecruisers," I say. "Looks like the damn Thrugs are back in town."

"Class D ships, from the looks of it," says Phenom. "They didn't even bother to scrape the grunge off from the last invasion."

"I think they're new models," says Mach-10. "They have different weapons configurations."

"You didn't even have powers the last time the Thrugs showed up," says Phenom. "What would you know about their weapons configs?"

"I've been reading," she says defensively. "Reading a lot."

Every speedster I know reads a lot. Life is boring as hell when the world runs at a snail's pace around you. Fast-forwarding through TV and movies always cuts out the sound, and your reflexes burn out video games. So it's books, books, books. Phenom does it, too, even if he tries to pretend he's too cool for reading.

You do not want to compete against a speedster in a trivia contest. We've read through dozens of newspapers, scientific journals, and novels every day. We've read through the encyclopedia and the dictionary and Sports Illustrated and Ladies Home Journal and Smithsonian and Jane's defense guides and done the New York Times Sunday crossword. We're all bored stiff, and if we're not fighting crime, we're reading textbooks and memorizing whatever we can.

Our group here has ten bachelors degrees, five masters, and three doctorates, in everything from the hard sciences to literature to psychology to law to business to medicine. I've got degrees in counseling, physics, and criminology. Mach-10 is the only one of us without a degree yet, and that's just because she promised her sister they'd both graduate together.

If I'm rambling, it's because it's been almost three seconds since we spotted the Thrug ships, and I'm getting bored waiting to see what's going to happen.

"Alright, so we've got a Thrug invasion, and we've all apparently wrecked a military base," says Nanosecond. "I've got to assume there's a connection."

"Thrugs don't do telepathy," I say. "Every invasion has focused on trying to overwhelm us with firepower."

"But all their firepower is stolen from other planets," says Roadrunner. "Could they have gotten their claws on some kind of mind control device?"

"If they did, it's stopped working now," says Phenom. "Or someone's managed to turn it off. Of course, they might be trying to fix it, so we should get out of range or -- Hey, it's the Blue Angel! How ya doin', Will!"

Sure enough, it's one of Seattle's local heroes, the Blue Angel. He's Navy Lt. Will Rowland, and he's one of the few speedsters who can fly.

We all spend a few minutes (relative to us -- probably about 1.5 seconds local time) greeting Will and telling him we didn't mean to tear up the base and asking if the cookout at his place next weekend is still on. (Yes, all speedsters socialize a lot -- we love getting to hang out with people who don't talk in slow motion.)

"They had me, Skyrocket, Breakneck, and Zoom Goon dismantling Wright-Patterson," he said. "And I saw Thrug ships running loose every step of the way from Ohio to here."

"My sis says they're in New Mexico, too," says Mach-10. "Instant twin radar, ya know."

"Right," says Roadrunner. "So we go with our usual alien-invasion strategy? Head for our home bases, help out anyone we can, wait to see if someone can give us a lift onto a spaceship so we can do some real damage?"

"Yeah, and keep your fingers crossed someone's going to organize some large-scale resistance," says Nanosecond. "The Assembly of Order isn't around to take care of that anymore -- maybe the Liberty League or the Alpha Alliance will be in charge of the big red phone this time."

So we say our usual fast farewells and head back for our hometowns -- which for me is going to mean about an hour of running. Probably more, 'cause I expect I'll have to slow down along the way to help someone out somewhere.

I've got a decent cell signal for now, so I send some superspeed text messages to my mom in Philly, my sister in NYC, and a few of the Metro City heroes to let 'em know where I am.

But for now, it's just me and my thoughts. There are indeed plenty of Thrug ships in the skies, but the Thrugs are, though generally dumber than a bag of liquid shit, unwilling to waste their ammo stores on targets that aren't dangerous to them. A speedster on the ground isn't particularly likely to go airborne, so they'll ignore me.

I've got to assume they had every speedster on the planet racing around wrecking air bases. Our technology is a lot lower than theirs -- or at least the technology they steal -- but air forces are very good at surprising alien invaders with attacks no one thought they were capable of making. And it gives the aliens the advantage of controlling the airspace over the planet.

This is my fourth alien invasion -- second one by the Thrugs, and the other two were the Zlaxion Empire and the G'nghian TechnoHorde. The Zlaxions almost took us down last time, but the People's Glorious Metahuman Collective, of all people, actually managed to shut the whole invasion down when they convinced the Empire's subjects to start a revolution against them. Hey, the Red Chinese superteam wants to spread Communism to the stars? I say let 'em, as long as they keep more alien invaders off our butts.

The hardest thing about alien invasions for most speedsters is that we're usually stuck on the ground. Unless someone flies us into a spaceship or teleports us inside, we're not fighting on the front lines -- we're working support, or we're helping out normal folks on the ground. It's all useful work, ultimately, but I've spent every invasion so far feeling like I was useless to the resistance efforts.

When you get right down to it, I think that's the biggest problem I have with being a speedster -- I never feel like I'm being as useful as I could be. Yeah, I know, I save a lot of lives and stop my share of criminals. But it never feels like I've done my share. That's part of why I went with the public identity and the open access policy -- let people call me and maybe I'll feel like I'm doing the work folks need me to do.

I like being able to run fast. I like getting to be a hero. But it's not really the powerset I would've chosen. I've always cared more about physical strength. My dad was a former Marine drill sergeant, and he always told me that I needed to be smarter than any kids in school, black or white, but if I couldn't be smarter, it wouldn't hurt to be stronger, too. He died when I was 12, and I guess I always told myself I needed to be more like him to pay tribute to the man he was.

I was big on football in high school and was on the track team, but as a shot putter, not a runner. Hell, I was actually disappointed when my mutant powers finally switched on. I didn't get to be the guy lifting a battleship -- I was just a guy who could run a few times faster than the speed of sound.  I didn't do like a lot of other speedsters do and start concentrating on running -- I went right on lifting weights.

So I can't run as fast as some speedsters (not that I'm particularly slow -- I'm just firmly locked in the middle range of superspeed), and I can't do a lot of the fancy tricks that the others can do. I can whip up whirlwinds, vibrate my molecules through solid objects, and run across water, but I can't run up the sides of buildings, I can't travel through time (at least not without using Blitz's old Time Turbine), and I can't travel faster than the speed of light.

But I am stronger than any other speedster, and I can hit harder and take a punch better than most of them. And I feel pretty good about that.

Speedsters in general are kinda undervalued anyway. Energy projectors are great for visual displays, fliers look awesome in flight, superstrong heroes can pick up really heavy stuff, but speedsters tend to move too fast to capture on film, so we don't get a lot of iconic aren't-we-awesome images to show off. Blitz was one of the fastest people on the planet and very nearly the most powerful member of the Assembly of Order, but he always got stuck on the back row of their posters, because the kids didn't think superspeed was cool.

Anyway, I run into my first crisis about 25 miles west of North Platte, Nebraska, where a young couple in a pickup truck lost control of the vehicle and drove into a ditch. They forgot their cell phone back at their little farmhouse, and my phone can't pick up a signal out here anymore.

And to top it all off, she's in labor. I can perform first aid and a few simple medical procedures, but delivering a baby isn't something I trust myself to do yet, especially not from a pickup on a country road during an alien invasion.

The front axle of the truck is busted, or I'd help Phil -- that's the nervous papa-to-be -- push it back onto the road, then give 'em a superspeed push to the North Platte hospital. And I don't much want to carry them either. I don't think I'll have any trouble holding Marie -- that's the flat-out terrified mom-to-be -- but I hate the idea of having to carry her in this condition. I have no idea whether I might accidentally injure her or the baby.

But damn, what other choice do I have? I carefully pick her up, tell Phil I'll be back in a few minutes to bring him in -- and then I just about smack myself for almost missing the obvious.

I get Phil to help me push the truck to level ground, then I run into North Platte and run back with an obstetrician, then with an E.R. nurse, and then with as much medical equipment as they tell me to get. The hospital sends an ambulance, but it's looking like the baby will be born before the paramedics make it out here.

I leave one of my calling cards on the truck's dashboard with a note to call or write and let me know if everything turned out okay, and then I burn rubber further east.

Okay, that's one thing I really like about being a speedster -- having a brain that works at superspeed gives me lots of time to think about problems and figure out good, workable solutions. Sometimes it seems like, even with all the running, all I really have time for is thinking. When the whole world moves so slowly around you, it gives you lots of time to think -- not just abstractly, but about specific things -- problems you're trying to figure out how to solve, people you have to deal with, the environment all around you.

If you'd known me in high school, I was a complete asshole to everyone -- rude, uncaring, brusque, and just basically not nice to anyone -- and I really don't know that you'd recognize me now. It's not that I've turned into a complete little angel, but all that superspeed thinking really helps to awaken your empathy for your fellow humans.

What's the gunman in the ER want? Once you spend a few superspeed seconds to think about it, you realize he's worried about his daughter's illness and thinks the docs aren't listening to his concerns. What's the liquor store robber want? A combination of fast money and cheap thrills. What's Defiant want? Mostly, she wants to piss off her old mentor, Professor Liberty, but there's also a frustrated teen sidekick buried under all that anger who wishes she could be a superhero again. What about the Grouch? He's a real complex one -- he wants to beat people up. He doesn't even care about getting off the planet anymore. He just wants to beat people up. That's really about it.

Empathizing with the bad guys doesn't make you soft or weak. It makes you stronger. You understand them and what they're doing and why they're doing it. And it gives you insights that'll let you beat them, capture them, or just convince them to go away.

Not that I've ever been able to stop with the bad guys, of course. What does Gamma Girl want? She wants to help people, she wants to look cool to the rest of us, and more often than not, she wants to go home and hang out with her family. What does Defender want? She wants to help people, too, and she wants us to think of her as calm, collected, and too sophisticated to take anything very seriously -- and I think she wishes her battlesuit had more aggressive powers. What about El Phantasmo? He wants to be a badass, and he wants girls. He wants girls so very, very bad. And the Chrome Cobra? She wants control. Man, she wants control more than anything else in the world. Everything she does is about establishing her ability to control everything she can, and the best way to make her angry is to resist being controlled.

Why do you think I've got a degree in counseling? Sometimes it's hard to shut this shit off.

But it's important to understand your friends and allies, just like it's important to understand your enemies. Not so you'll be able to beat them or manipulate them -- again, that's the Cobra's gig -- but just because it feels good to understand them, to know what they want, and if they ever need it, to know that you can help them get what they want.

I have to make another stop when I get to Columbus, Ohio. In a crisis like this, there'll always be people who'll take advantage of the chaos by trying to turn it to their own benefit -- and here, that means a trio of supervillains have decided to rob a bank while the authorities and other superheroes are focused on trying to take down Thrug ships or helping out people on the ground.

You'd think that would be something that you'd miss when you're running through town at superspeed, but there are some things you train yourself to identify, even at top speed, or else you'd spend your whole day running through the city and never actually catching any crime happening. You learn to recognize the sounds of screams, sirens, gunshots, crying babies, screeching brakes... and bank alarms.

So I hit the brakes and backtrack to Columbus National Bank, where the bad guys are just now on their way out of the building. You know I got a few supervillain databases memorized, so these guys are easy to identify: Rageface, red-faced, barbed-wire-wrapped brick who gets his strength from the constant pain he suffers from his exposed nerve endings; Kid Cryo, smirky rich kid wearing a cold-projecting supersuit; and Powerblast, arrogant egotist who thinks his energy blast powers make him a world-beater.

They've just started to perceive me -- probably as a blast of speed-driven wind and a flicker of my green, black, and red costume. It's not enough to tell who I am, but enough to tell that there's a speedster on the scene. Not that I'm going to give them enough time to process that information.

Kid Cryo is the most immediate threat. I know how to control my movement on ice, but it still slows me down and makes me less efficient. I need to take care of him before he starts putting any ice on the ground. Easily done -- his suit isn't very heavily armored, and he's unconscious even before he realizes I'm hitting him. Nice to get him out of the way before he starts with his usual idiotic frat-boy insults, actually.

Powerblast is next, mostly because I don't want him taking potshots at me while I work on Rageface. He's less of a threat than either of the other two, and normally, I'd probably want to spend some more time on him, because he's really pretty amusing to beat. He thinks of himself as a serious A-lister, a combination of Ragnarok and Dr. Omicron, and I suppose I'm just cruel enough to enjoy watching a guy that full of himself get mad when he gets skunked. Still, better to have him out of the way, so I knock him out with a quick half-dozen punches.

So that leaves Rageface. Superstrong tanks can be tough to deal with if you let them get their hands on you, but I'm pretty sure Rageface isn't fast enough to lay a hand on me. I take a tenth of a second to try to decide whether I want to start up a whirlwind and spin him around 'til he's too dizzy to function or just use some superfast momentum to drag him into one of the power-draining cells in the Columbus Police Department.

And then I realize he's saying something. Starts with an "N" followed by a "ih" sound.

Ohh, he wants to play it that way.

The first four dozen punches are to get him off-balance. The next dozen are aimed at his kidneys. I spend a third of a second hammering on the barbed-wire harness he wears, just to make sure it's gouging him good and hard. His arms are starting to pinwheel.

He makes it to a "g" sound.

I back up about a thousand feet, take aim, and charge at him full speed.

When I hit him, I'm packing a hell of a lot of kinetic energy, and the impact probably feels something like getting shot with a cannon. Rageface is a tough customer, but he's not so tough that he didn't feel that.

I stop about a thousand feet past him, turn around, and go back for another punch.

Then another.

I keep doing that over and over for almost a second-and-a-half.

I might be able to finish him off this way, but I'm bored with it already. While he's on his hands and knees, retching and starting to bleed, I start running around him in a tight circle, just far enough away to stay out of his reach. Around and around, faster and faster, until the whirlwind generates enough lift to make him hover off the concrete. Then I grab a leg and start him spinning around faster and faster.

I could stop now, and he'd be too dizzy and nauseous to be a threat to anyone for a few hours -- long enough for the police to find him and stuff him into a cell with a power-dampener around his neck. But I'm still mad, so I'm gonna make an example of him.

It takes another second to get him going fast enough and to adjust my aim to correct for his weight and the speed he'll be spinning.

When I reverse direction, Rageface is thrown out of the whirlwind, still spinning at a few hundred rotations per second. He flies up higher, higher, angles off somewhat to the south, and ricochets off the forceshield of one of the Thrug ships.

He wasn't going fast enough to get through the shield, but the Thrugs have been keeping their eyes peeled for anything getting launched up at them, especially metahumans. So they shoot him a few times with electrocannons before he crashes back down to earth.

Don't worry, I'm sure he's fine. Last year, he grabbed Miss Mega's butt during a battle, and she punched him clear into Jersey. If he could survive that (45 days in a bodycast definitely counts as survival), then he can survive this.

And from there, I'm heading back east again.

So yeah, I'm not a big fan of racism.

Was my reaction back there a little bit too much? Maybe. It's not like I treat every racist asshole that way. Just superstrong supervillain racist assholes.

I've mellowed a lot over the years. I really think I have. Used to be everything pissed me off. Little old white ladies who'd cross the street when I was near. Having to wait longer than white people to get service in stores. Getting glared at by white people in traffic. I was angry as hell when I was younger.

I eventually learned to let some stuff go. Ain't no way to make racism disappear, at least not this century. I let the little stuff go. I even let some of the big stuff go.

We can't help the culture we grow up in. But lots of people work to change things, and lots of other people try to do good, even if they can't change the culture. I know white people who act awkward and nervous around black people, but if that's all they do, I have a hard time working up any outrage. I know white people who are working hard to change their racial attitudes but still make occasional slip-ups, and I don't give 'em shit about it anymore, because I appreciate the fact that they're trying to change.

And I know I've got racism in my soul, too -- but again, I'm trying to be a better person.

But there's still a lot of stuff that pisses me off. Racist cops piss me off bad. And serious bigotry by anyone with real power is another sore point, so I hate racists in politics, the media, and among supervillains -- or superheroes. The Assembly of Order always rubbed me wrong. Just a gut feeling that there was a lot of bad stuff and rotten attitudes going on behind those flashy powers and all-American smiles.

So a supervillain dropping the N-word on me is a solid guarantee to piss me off hard.

I don't think that counts as a particularly bad attitude -- caring about politics and hating racism seems like the attitude everyone should have. But it doesn't really make me the most popular guy in Metro City. The cops aren't big fans, several politicians don't like me, online newspaper commenters and talk radio hosts despise me. That's actually just fine with me. It's nice to think that the worst people in the city hate my guts. Means I'm doing something right.

I finally hit the city limits, and as expected, things are in absolute chaos. There are small Thrug fliers everywhere, an extremely large spaceship hovering over the city, and a lot more wreckage than I was expecting.

I race around the city for a few seconds 'til I manage to find some local heroes -- Penitente, the Star, and the Chrome Cobra. It looks like the smaller Thrug ships are actually landing and taking the fighting down to street level, which I hadn't seen in any other cities I'd been through. These three have already taken care of about two dozen Thrug warriors (You ever seen a Thrug face to face? Not pretty, unless you like slimy, short-nosed crocodiles in yellow armor.) by the time I get there, but I help mop up the six or seven leftovers.

"Express!" shouts Star once everything calms down. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Stuck out of town," I say. "Mind your own business."

I don't like the Star. He could've made some positive changes to the Assembly of Order, but he was willing to let things slide the way they were. And yes, it's already been pointed out to me that I don't hold Atlas to the same standard. And no, it doesn't make me like Star any more than I already did.

"I got a text from him a while back," says Penitente. "Sorry I didn't mention it before -- I didn't realize you hadn't gotten it, too."

"Way to be unprofessional," says Star.

"Go to hell," I say.

"Both of you shut up," says Cobra. "I don't need any extra stress in my life right now."

"How's the rest of the country handling this?" Penitente asks.

"Better than Metro City, actually," I say. "But for some reason, they aren't landing anywhere else. They're all hovering overhead and shooting the occasional energy blast, but nothing like this. What'd we do to earn the special treatment?"

"You saw the big ship overhead, right?" says Cobra. "Looks like that's the Thrug mothership."

"The mothership?" I say. "You mean we're the focal point of the whole invasion?!"

"Looks like it," says Star. "No idea why they didn't go with New York or some other larger city this time."

"I've got some thoughts on that," says Cobra. "The mothership is always the Thrugs' one indispensable ship -- do enough damage to it, and it has to flee to the Thrug homeworld for repairs, taking the rest of the invasion fleet with it. Most of their previous invasions have sent the mothership after New York, Beijing, London, or Los Angeles -- all of which have powerful, well-organized superteams on hand to take it down -- and the times they sent the mothership to southern Egypt or the Pacific Ocean, they got taken out by the Assembly of Order."

"And we don't have an organized superteam or the Assembly of Order," I say with a groan. "We've at least got some other teams on the way, right?"

"No such luck," says Penitente. "Not long after I got your text, the Thrugs started blowing up communications satellites. We can't make any calls out. No one else knows the mothership is here."

"I just wish we knew where all our other missing heroes were," says Star.

"Missing?" I ask. "Like who?"

"We got a half-dozen we can't track down," says Star. "Hybrid's a no-show. Same for Squid Kid, Hypothermia, Gearbox, Wheelman, and Jonni. Not answering calls, can't be tracked, and not showing up to fight. No one's heard anything from 'em."

"We still got some advantages," says Penitente. "First, Express can probably alert the superteams in New York and Philly pretty damn quick, maybe even Boston or Washington, D.C., right? And don't forget, we also got the brains who organized the planet's metahuman defenses during the last four alien invasions."

"I just made some calls, that's all," says Cobra.

"And sent out battlefield analysis and plans, organized cross-team strikeforces, maintained global communications with heroes in the field, and plotted out every last detail of our attacks on the aliens," says the Star. "The Black Scourge was a control freak on the Assembly's missions, and he looked forward to alien invasions so he could watch how a real pro handled strategy and tactics."

"Sheeeesh," Cobra says, shrugging dismissively and dropping into a weird slumping posture.

"Wh-What the hell was that?" says Penitente, looking shocked. I think all three of us have the same expression. In all the years I've known the Chrome Cobra, I've never seen anything quite like that.

She straightens up immediately. "Sorry about that," she says. "It's been... stressful. Didn't get much sleep the last few nights, then got mind controlled today, and I've been fighting these things every since the mind control stopped working. I'm just feeling a little more stress than usual." Even through that mask, she looks embarrassed as hell.

"D-Don't worry about it," I say. "It's been a hell of a day."

"Anyway, you better get a move on, Derek," says Penitente. "I hear the Thrug motherships can set down some city-sized forcefields -- better get the cavalry in here before they think of that."

There's a sound above us like tearing cellophane, then a golden yellow field of energy spreads out from the mothership and blankets the sky all the way down to the horizon.

"Why did you even say it out loud, man?" asks Star.

"Jesus, I'm sorry," says Penitente. "How was I to know?"

"Don't ever tempt karma," I say. "You know karma's always looking to laugh at us. You know how much karma hates us."

"Okay, don't worry," says Cobra. "I've been thinking about this, and I'm pretty sure we don't need outside help to take down that mothership. I think I've got a working plan, so let's try to get everyone together so I can hand out everyone's marching orders."

Five Thrug fliers suddenly zoom up to make a strafing run at us, then hover over us in a complex spinning pattern and maintain a steady battery of energy stunner pulses -- they're not designed to kill, just to knock you unconscious. I'm able to dodge every blast, but the others aren't going to be so lucky if I don't hurry. Luckily, hurry is what I do best. I'm able to get to all of them in less than a twentieth of a second, though it'll be hard to drag all three along with me. I won't have to take 'em far -- just out of the ships' sensor ranges so we can regroup.

And then all five ships switch from individual blasts to wide-beam attacks.

Much lighter intensity -- won't do much more than knock you down and stun you for a second or two. But they're impossible for even me to dodge.

All four of us go flying.

I'm back on my feet in less than two seconds. But the Thrug ships are already flying back to the mothership. And they're dragging a hostage behind them in a stasis bubble.

How the hell are we gonna beat these guys without the Chrome Cobra?

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