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My name is Michael Fremont, and I'm a superhero.

I'm sure you'd know me better as the Star, former member of the Assembly of Order. I have a wide variety of cosmic-powered abilities -- blaster powers, flight, force fields, etc., etc. Some of my body may be composed of stellar energy -- not entirely sure if that's so, since it's not something you can go ask your doctor. At any rate, I can regenerate from damage pretty quickly, and even take on a pure cosmic-energy form. I don't like doing that -- it hurts like hell, and I worry it could cause me permanent damage if I maintain the form too long.

It's all thanks to the Nebula-9000, Astrotech Optics Company's worst-designed telescope prototype ever. A scope that concentrates stellar radiation may sound like a great idea on paper, but in practice, it just leads to radiation exposure, mutated DNA, and secretly-developed superpowers. The good news was that the scope got taken off the shelves once its defects were public knowledge, and I got a decent settlement from the company, enough to finance my superhero career. Not much of a consolation for the people who were killed by it, though.

Back in the real world, I'm a fairly new resident of Metro City. I used to live in San Francisco, but got offered a great job here. What do I do? I'm a contract attorney. I won't lie to you -- it's not the most exciting job in the world. I'm glad to do it, and I'm glad to be good at it, and I think it is, at the end of the day, important work. But I know there are more glamorous jobs out there.

For instance: being a superhero. When I finally decided to go back to the spandex, Hector acted upset about it, but I do think he was secretly grooving on the idea. I know he'd never tell anyone about my secret identity, but he thinks it's cool having a boyfriend who fights supervillains. Hell, maybe he's right.

Anyway, we made sure the costume got fixed up and was looking right. Hector figured we'd have to mend moth holes or something, but luckily, you don't have to worry about that when your costume's made of Futorium atoms, right? We figured out a good date for me to start real patrols, and lo and behold, the next day, we got a note mysteriously left on the kitchen table.

Mr. Fremont,

I'm glad to hear you'll be returning to action soon. May I suggest a few stopovers on your first few days of patrols? I've arranged for some quick meetings with the other metahuman crimefighters in Metro City, just to make sure you're familiar with everyone.


Paperclipped to this was a list of times, dates, and locations around the city.

Atlas had already told me about his run-in with her, but this pretty much left me in shock. First, how did she find out I was coming back? Second, how did she get into the house? I still don't know whether to be angry or in awe. The Chrome Cobra had always seemed standoffish and aloof when I was in the Assembly -- why were we getting the mother-hen treatment now?

Hector read the note, proclaimed it the best thing ever, framed it, and put it over the mantle. He got insulted when I took it down. We can keep it in the cedar chest, but not out in public where anyone can see it, for god's sake.

Anyway, I didn't see any reason not to keep the appointments. So I went out tonight for my first night back in costume and made my first stop at 9:30 in the middle of Montclair Park. I actually ended up waiting a few minutes, feeling like an idiot the whole time. What if some jogger or cop comes by? Hey, don't mind me, just a tall, skinny black gay dude hanging around a public park wearing a blue and white bodysuit and a white cape -- I don't care how many times you save the world, you still feel self-conscious.

And then, all at once, there's a flicker in the air, and suddenly, there's another black guy there -- shorter and more muscular than I am, wearing a much more garish green, black, and red costume. He's still vibrating from slowing down so quickly. No one makes an entrance better than speedsters.

"I'm called Express," he says. "Do you go by 'Star' or 'the Star'?"

"Either is fine, I guess," I say, "It's nice to meet you. I've heard a lot about --"

"Save it. I'm not interested," he snaps back. "I was no big fan of the Assembly of Status Quo. A pretty damn racist organization, as far as I was concerned. You could've done something about that, but you were more interested in being a token. Do your job here, and we'll have no argument. But you sure ain't getting any Valentines from me, got it?"

A flicker in the air, a crack in the air like splintering ice, and he's gone again.

Christ almighty, I had no idea the Express was from Metro City.

He petitioned for membership in the Assembly of Order several times. I was never in charge of selecting new members, but I always assumed he didn't get accepted because we already had three or four speedsters on the team already, and they were all faster and more versatile than Express was.

Not that he isn't considered an outstanding superhero. He's a full-time hero, with a public identity. He puts his real name, address, and phone number in the phone book, so anyone who needs him can find him. As a full-time hero, he gets a public stipend from the government, but it's not that much. He takes a lot of shit from people for being really, really political and race-conscious, but he absolutely kicks ass as a superhero. But really, it's not like we accepted everyone who applied for membership. We were at least a little bit exclusive.

And not that I'm not in agreement with him somewhat. Before the Assembly broke up, there weren't but seven heroes of African descent in the entire organization, and none who were part of the core leadership of the team. The team had plenty of other problems besides -- but it's not my place to speak ill of the recently-vanished, so I'll leave it there.

My next stop is clear over on the roof of the Lieber Arts Center. Sitting on an air conditioning unit is the only Metro City superhero I'm actually nervous about. She wears a green and black masked costume with an odd, asymmetrical design. She has olive skin, long black hair, and for the moment, looks entirely human. She gets up as she sees me coming in for a landing, and puts out a hand to shake.

"Mr. Star sir, hi," she says. "I'm Hybrid. It's really, really excellent to meet you."

"It's, uh, nice to meet you, too."

I hope I don't look too apprehensive as I shake her hand. I don't know what kind of stimuli sets her off, but I sure don't want her thinking I'm being insulting. I really hope she can't smell fear.

You ever seen the YouTube of her debut? The Iron Eagle had taken a news crew hostage. He was doing his usual deranged monologuing for the cameras, and the cameraman sees something behind him in the shadows and moves the camera slightly and starts re-focusing. The Eagle sees the camera movement and starts to turn; about the same time, the cameraman gets his focus fixed. And BAM, she jumps out, roaring like something out of a nightmare, all fangs and claws and scary yellow eyes. All the hostages run, and the cameraman catches her jumping on the Eagle and laying into him like she's gonna rip him to shreds. She did a pretty good job of it, too -- he was in the hospital for a month. Only time I ever felt sorry for that Nazi bastard.

She hasn't injured anyone nearly that badly since then, and she's never gone after anyone but bad guys, but she's probably one of the most feared metahumans around. If you ever see supervillains and civilians running away from something, there's a pretty good bet it's Hybrid.

"I really can't say I'm much into hero fandom," she says. "But it really is a thrill to have heavy-hitters like you and Atlas in Metro City. I hope you don't mind me asking, but are you a dancer? You look like a dancer."

"No, sorry," I reply. "Just social dancing, really." It's really weird that she's acting so charming and normal. It's not like I've never seen her looking human -- everyone knows this is her default form. But she always seems really intense, really quick to turn into the monster.

"Ah, okay," she smiles with perfect straight teeth. "I never heard too much about your social life, so it seemed like a pretty safe guess. I assume the Assembly kept fairly complete dossiers on other superheroes -- but is there anything you need to know about me?"

That's a pretty clear opening, I guess. "Well, no offense, but aren't you generally a bit more... terrifying?"

She laughs, then smiles broadly and toothily. And then she gets more toothy. The lower part of her face pushes forward into a muzzle. Her eyes change from murky brown to glowing rabid-yellow. The tips of her ears elongate up past her hair. She hunches over in an animalistic crouch. Vicious claws slide out from her fingers, and her hands splay out wider.

"Yuh mean shumphin more like thush?" she growls through a mouthful of fangs.

"Yeah, something more like that." Dammit, my voice actually quavered.

A more guttural laugh this time, her teeth flashing like a tiger's. "Sheriousshly, mossht of that'sh jussht an act. I washh a bit on a hair-triggerr when I firssht shhtarted out, but I nearly neverrr go totally feral anymore."

"What do you mean, it's an act?" My voice is back under control, but how embarrassing. I didn't even get scared when the Legion of Malevolence invaded the Assembly Satellite.

"It'shh eashier to beat the bad guyshh when they'rre too shcared to fight back. A little shtrategy, a little finesshe." She suddenly stands at attention, places her claws together, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and then does a perfect pirouette, and after she's come back around, she looks completely normal again. She smiles just in time for me to see her canine teeth shrink back to their usual size.

"It's not always fun to be the monster," she says. "But it's my role, and I'm willing to play it."

After I take my leave, I take a few minutes to fly up a few hundred feet and do some stargazing. It's a beautiful night -- clear sky, not too cold. I wish I had some time to get the scope out and do some tracking -- seems like it's been ages since I had time for that.

I almost get to my next stop -- the roof of a grocery store in the Shusterville suburb -- when I come across three guys breaking into an upscale storefront toy store. Really, who burglarizes a toy store? They're not known for having tons of spare cash, and unless you're the Toymaster, you're probably not obsessive enough about toys to just need to carry off a bunch of chemistry kits and hand-carved wooden trains. These were just three random-looking guys, so I flew down to take them out.

There's a certain order you have to do these things in. You can't just go in blazing -- what if it's the store owner, and he's just lost his key? So you give 'em a chance to either explain themselves or surrender.

"Hold it right there, gentlemen," I shout, putting as much bass as I can into the delivery.

"Cripes! It's the capes!" shouts one of them. He pulls out a gun and pops off a couple of shots, which rebound harmlessly off my cosmic forcefield. Well, that settles the question of "burglars or owner," doesn't it?

A quick cosmic jolt knocks the gunman off his feet. He drops the gun, and his buddies take off running. I drop a stellar snare around the gunman to keep him on the ground, and throw a second snare around one of the other burglars, yanking him off his feet. Unfortunately, the third burglar gets around the corner -- I've got to see him to snare him, and if I chase him down, I'll have to drop the snares around his pals. Not really a big loss, actually -- the other two burglars will give him up to the cops.

But as it turns out, the third guy comes back around the corner about a second later, flying head over heels. Even before he stops skidding, a long chain of cables, wires, hoses, and metal plating follows him and starts wrapping him up. Once he's nicely pinned, the other end of the chain comes around the corner -- and it's attached to the arm socket of a short, thin, red-and-yellow robot. He coils up the burglar, lifts him up, and carries him over to where I'm standing.

"Good evening, sir," he says, sounding a lot like Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL in "2001," with just a bit of electronic reverb. His lower jaw is the only moving part on his face, other than the tiny yellow bulbs in his eyes. "When you didn't come by the grocery store a few minutes ago, I decided to see if something was keeping you. Could I trouble you to put one of your stellar snares around this schmuck? I've already radioed the police about this, but I prefer not to be around when they show up. Sorry I can't stay longer for the usually-obligatory post-battle chit-chat."

And he takes off, his arms and legs reconfiguring into wheels as he roars down a side street, just as the police drive up.

Of course, I recognized him, too -- Gearbox, shapeshifting robot superhero and wanted renegade. The Assembly kept telling us to capture him if we encountered him, but most of us knew why the police and government wanted him -- the courts haven't yet decided that sapient AIs and robots have rights, so they want to capture him, take him apart, and try to build more of him. Just like they've tried to do to Mechano-Boy, Tin Machine, Psionitron, and HANG-10 for years.

Most superheroes do what they can to keep them safe -- it wasn't too many decades back that Hoover's FBI classified all metas as Inhuman Subversives, subject to immediate arrest and dissection. Not that I'm old enough to remember those days, but I don't think anyone should be treated that way.

I'm disappointed he couldn't stick around longer. I'd love to get to talk to him at length.

Two weird things: First, I was about set to leave the crime scene and head home for the night when a big black sedan pulls up next to the patrol cars, and Benedict Alexander himself gets out. I know him by reputation only -- I'm not a trial lawyer, but everyone's familiar with the hotshot defense attorney at Severn, Alexander & Burke. I'm not close enough to hear exactly what he says to the cops, but it's clear that Alexander is representing the burglars. I know his firm probably represents clients from all over the socio-economic scale, but why is the senior partner personally handling the cases of some smash-and-grab thieves?

The second weird thing: One of the cops mentioned to me that all three of the burglars had work IDs from Astrotech Optics -- the same company that made the defective telescope that gave me my powers. Bizarre coincidence, right?

I head home after that. Hector's already gone to bed -- so much for sitting up late to worry about me. I'd like to go to bed, too, but I have too many things to think about, and I don't know if I can fall asleep right now.

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