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(I decided I needed to give Atlas a full storyarc, so we're backtracking a bit in Metro City continuity. This story takes place soon after Atlas Drugged.)

My name's Lamont Gomez, and it looks like I'm getting back into the superhero business.

We had a big family meeting the other night to talk things over. Audra, my wife, was very much in favor of it, because she could tell that sitting on the sidelines was driving me nuts. Malcolm, our nine-year-old, approved, too -- he loves superheroes and desperately wanted his old man back in costume. Gerry, our youngest, didn't really have a strong grasp of what it all means, but he wanted whatever would make everyone happiest.

Lena, my 16-year-old, raised the most concerns -- I don't think she was ever very resistant to the idea of me going back out there, but she's hit the age where she worries about everything, and I think she wanted to make sure we were thinking of the disadvantages as well as the advantages. But she said that she thought I should start patrolling again, because she knew it'd make me happy -- though she did get me to promise to take three days off from superheroing a week, instead of the two I'd always taken off before.

So we all went and got my costume out of the garage. It was stored in a couple of plastic storage bins underneath a bunch of other plastic storage bins. The plan was for all of us to help unpack it so we'd all feel like we had some ownership of the decision. I was the tallest, so I took down the boxes at the top of the stack, Lena helped re-stack the bins afterwards, Malcolm carried in the bins with my costume (the bins aren't that heavy, but we knew he'd love feeling important), Audra supervised everything, and Gerry found a bin with my dad's old toy cars, so he played with those for the rest of the evening.

Once we got everything inside, Audra had me wash the uniform (she's refused to wash it ever since I came home one evening in Detroit after having a run-in with Pusbucket) while the kids polished up the big silver metal "A" chestplate.

And after that, we all hit the sack for the night. Not like I was going out that evening anyway. For one thing, my costume was soaking wet. And for another, I didn't plan to make my Metro City debut 'til next Monday -- you don't want to have your first patrol on a weekend when all the crazies are out.

When we got up the next morning, there was a note on the kitchen table, along with -- I kid you not -- a deluxe fruit basket. The note read:

Mr. Gomez,

Sorry about all the trouble the other night. I'll continue to maintain that I made the right decisions, but I do recognize that it was certainly a stressful visit.

I understand you'll be returning to action on Monday. I've taken the liberty of scheduling some stopovers you can make during your first few days of patrols -- I'm sure you'd like to get to meet the other heroes in Metro City, and a few informal meetings should get you acquainted with everyone in less than a week.

We're all looking forward to working with you, sir -- and welcome to Metro City.

There was an attached schedule with dates, times, locations, and names of Metro City's superheroes -- some with familiar names, and some completely new to me.

Lena hated hearing that she'd been sleep-gassed the first time the Cobra was in the house, so she wasn't in a very forgiving mood and wanted me to tear the schedule up. Malcolm was more excited about getting superhero notes. Audra was already a big fan of the Cobra, because she'd already heard how she arranged her rescue during the hostage situation with Warzone. And Gerry just wanted someone to peel him an orange.

I was still irritated with the Cobra for using the neural paralyzer to keep me from going out to help Audra, but I really wanted to get to meet the other Metro City heroes, at least to make sure we didn't fall into the old "We just met, so let's fight 'til we realize we're both heroes" dustup.

So we all had one last perfectly normal weekend as a family, hitting Pekar Parkway Amusement Park, grilling some burgers, and eating at LosBros Pizza Palace, Gerry's favorite restaurant in the entire universe. We all had a great time, and I ended up really appreciating Lena's wisdom at insisting I take more time away from superheroing to be with the family.

And finally, this Monday evening, I get into the uniform and head out. I take a fast circuit of the city from the air -- I'd done plenty of walking tours around the city getting ready to patrol, but nothing compares to getting to take to the air and fly around a big, beautiful, skyscraper-filled place like Metro City, especially at night.

After that, I head for Woodwall Hill, an upscale residential area where Dr. Stephen Denziger -- better known by his hero name of Iota -- keeps his home and laboratory. Denziger is a mutant with the ability to shrink, but he's also an inventor and gadgeteer. He was never a member of the Assembly of Order, and I've never met him before. He was considered more notable within the Assembly as a scientist than as a hero -- it's hard for shrinkers to get a lot of respect.

Our meeting was arranged for the rooftop of his lab, which doesn't look near as high-tech and futuristic as you'd think, with his reputation. In fact, it looks like an unusually large backyard garage/workshop. Denziger -- or rather, Iota, since he is wearing his armored red and blue costume -- is sitting next to an open skylight when I come in for a landing.

"Good evening, sir," I say as I touch down. "My name's Atlas -- it's good to meet you."

"How are you, Atlas?" Iota says as we shake hands. "You can call me Iota, Stephen, Doc -- whatever you care to, really. I've got a public identity, so there's no need to worry about what you need to call me."

"Thanks," I say. "I do have a secret ID, sorry."

"No worries at all," Iota says. "I'm assuming the Assembly's records were pretty complete about me?"

"I think so," I say. "Mutant with powers of shrinking, flight, energy blasts, and super-genius, right?"

"Ahh, not exactly," he says. "Shrinking and flight are my mutant abilities. The brain power is entirely natural. The energy blasts are actually the stunner blasts I built into my gauntlets."

"Yes, well, there's plenty of discussion about whether or not superhuman levels of intelligence may actually be a metahuman power of its own, right?"

"Not as far as I'm concerned," Denziger says. "Granted, my expertise is in engineering and general wide-ranging science, but if intelligence qualifies as a superpower, then every person on Earth is a metahuman. Trust me on this, I'm a scientist."

Well, like I'm gonna argue about something that trivial. But the man just said it's not his area of expertise. Why should I take an engineer's word about metahuman biology? I'm kinda bad tempted to say this, but I don't much think this is the way to start out my first meeting with a fellow superhero, so I'd better try to keep things light.

"Well, at any rate, I'm pleased to be in Metro City," I say. "I caught a news report the other night with you helping take down that hospital crisis at Metro City General with Warzone. Looked like really excellent work."

"Thanks," says Iota. "To be honest, I don't know why I even got called in on that one. The Cobra called in half the heroes in the city for that incident -- most were actually sent to the hostages' homes to check in with their families. Seemed like the kind of job that the Cobra could've handled all by herself. But everything worked out fine, I suppose."

I don't say what I really want to: "Thank you for saving my wife. Thank you for keeping Warzone and especially that monster Hybrid away from my wife. Thank you for doing what I would've tried to do if the Chrome Cobra hadn't zapped me with a neural paralyzer to keep me out of the situation. Oh, and also, what the hell is wrong with the Chrome Cobra anyway? I would've loved to have gotten to smash Warzone's face in."

Again, I didn't say any of that, because I have a secret identity. You share those with people you trust very well -- and even then, you're a bit nervous about it. It's not just that you need to worry about them accidentally revealing your real name, but it's also just a heavy burden to put on someone -- you're making them worry about the welfare of your friends and loved ones, instead of just their own.

"Well, I'd be glad to help out with any organization around here," I say. "I learned a few things about superteam logistics working with the Assembly the past few years."

"Well, don't get your hopes up too much," he says with a shrug. "We've never been a real team-friendly city. Everyone seems pretty comfortable doing their own thing and getting together to help each other out from time to time. I don't think Metro City has had an official superteam since the '70s, and I'm not sure that anyone is interested in starting one now."

"I don't see how that can work out for everyone," I say. "Don't lone-wolf superheroes need backup sometimes?"

"You shouldn't think of us as lone wolves," he says. "We partner up pretty often. We stay in communication. We just don't do anything like a formalized team structure. It was discussed once, and we decided it wasn't for us."

"I think teams tend to work really well," I say. "Let's say Star and I decide we want to start up a Metro City team -- what kind of reaction is that going to get?"

"Well, first, is the Star in Metro City?" he asks. "I hadn't heard that."

"Not officially," I say. "I probably shouldn't have said that. He is, and I assume he'll be patrolling here, but please don't tell anyone about that yet, okay?"

"Fair enough," Iota says. "As for your main question -- it won't happen. The Cobra will say no, and everyone else will fall in line."

I would actually love to argue this further -- because it sounds like they already have a superteam, with the Cobra as their leader, but they're just not calling it a team. However, there really isn't any reason to needlessly pick fights here.

We exchange another few minutes' worth of pleasantries (he's apparently a baseball fanatic and pumps me for any information I have about how the Tigers are expected to do next season), then I move on to my next meeting.

I fly over to Metro City University and head for the tower of their administration building. There's a girl wearing a black goth-punk outfit swinging around and around the tower using a bunch of weird, inky-black tentacle-arms. I end up waiting a few minutes, watching her swing around one way, then reversing and going the other way, waiting to see if she's ever going to notice that I'm there.

"Excuse me," I finally say. "Are you Squid Kid?"

"Just a minute!" she shouts as she slowly swings to a stop, dangling from the top of the tower. "Holy crap, so dizzy!"

"What are you doing?" I ask. "Weren't you told I was going to be coming out here?"

"Well, sure," she says, coiling the tentacles up to pull herself to the top of the tower. "But I got out here early, like 20 minutes ago, to make sure I wasn't late. And it gets incredibly boring on this campus on Monday nights. So, ya know, acrobatics! You never know when you might need acrobatics, right?"

She lifts herself up above the top of the tower, balancing on the tentacles like multiple sets of legs. She extends one tentacle arm toward me, and it suddenly turns into a normal flesh-and-blood arm.

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Atlas," she says with a wry grin. "The name's Lenore Pittman, but you can call me Squid Kid!"

"Hi, Squid Kid," I say, shaking her hand. "It's great to meet you."

"And actually, it's okay to just call me Lenore," she adds. "Or Squiddie. Or pretty much anything else you want to."

"Well, I'm pretty much just Atlas," I say. "Sorry -- I keep a secret identity."

"No problem," she says. "So what do you need to know about me? I'm the newest hero in town, so I don't know how much the Assembly of Order's databases may have said about me."

"It's been a while since I reviewed the old Assembly databases," I admit. "Go ahead and fill me in on what you do."

"Sure," Squid Kid says. "Obviously, my thing is the tentacles. They stretch all over the place and stick to everything. Got a decent healing factor, too. Oh, and if you ever see something with completely black skin, no eyes, and a really big smile, please don't kill it, because it's apparently me."

I suspect I take a little too long trying to parse this, because she finally jumps back in to explain.

"Yes, it sounds crazy, for so many reasons," she says. "Apparently, if I keep my tentacles out for 15 or 20 minutes, I look like some kind of monster. It's still me in there -- I just look weird. And I say 'apparently' because I really can't see anything different about me. I look like me when I look in a mirror, I can't tell any difference in my voice. But everyone else says it happens, so I guess it happens. Just don't freak out and drop a car on me or anything, okay?"

"Okay, I'll do my best," I finally manage to say. "Thanks for warning me. Anything you need to know about me?"

"Hmm, not sure," she says. "I'm assuming your Superpedia entry is still accurate? High strength, flight, nigh invulnerable?"

"Yeah, that's the basic powerset," I say. "How many other superstrong heroes are there in Metro City? I'd like to discuss tactics with them."

"Hmm, well, Cobra and Defender both get some strength from their powersuits," Squid Kid says. "But Miss Mega is our heavy hitter."

"How strong is she?" I ask. "The Assembly database was vague about her, for whatever reason."

Lenore thinks for a moment. "You've heard of Ragnarok, right?"

"Oh, yeah," I say. "It took half the Assembly membership to take him down last time he surfaced. We had him classified as an Omega-level threat."

"Yeah," says Lenore. "Miss Mega kicked his ass."

"Whhuu?" I wish I had a drink so I could spit it out in shock.

"I mean, I'm sure it helped that she had the element of surprise," she says. "I think he had no clue who she was. She punched him from 92nd Street to 88th, and then to 79th, and then to 70th. He finally managed to zap her with those RagnaVolt Gauntlets of his, and that pretty much evened the odds, but by then everyone else in town was gunning for him, and he teleported out while he still could."

"Sh-She punched out Ragnarok?" I say, more than a little astonished. Why the hell wasn't Miss Mega ever invited into the Assembly?

"Well, she didn't really punch him out," she says. "I think she could've if he hadn't hit her with his RagnaVolts. But Mega was just pissed that he teleported away so quickly. She said even with getting zapped all over downtown by his gauntlets, he was still a better punching bag than Penny Dreadful. Hey, I hate to do the meet-and-greet and then run, but I'm skipping patrols tonight -- got a paper to type up before class tomorrow morning."

We say our goodbyes -- nice to see a young hero who's willing to work on school instead of focusing entirely on super-brawling -- and I head toward my next meeting.

I come down for a landing at the Eastman Park Mall, where I find my next contact lurking by the back entrance to the building. He's dressed in black pants and a black jacket and wearing a black T-shirt with a cartoon ghost on it. He's wearing a brightly-colored, downright garish luchador mask. He's surrounded by a swirl of semi-translucent, gauzy, vaguely-humanoid shapes.

"Good evening, sir," he says. "I'm called El Phantasmo."

"That's nice, son," I say. "But aren't you a bit young for this sort of thing?"

"I'm not your son, sir," he replies. "And you don't have any idea how old I am."

"I think I can tell, and I'm pretty sure you're not out of high school yet."

"Thanks, sir, but do you have any idea how tired I am of listening to people tell me I'm too young to fight crime? Have you considered maybe minding your own business?"

"There's no need to get confrontational," I say.

"You started it, sir," he says. "Now do you want to argue, or do you want to help me out with this thing?"

I tell him I'm not even sure what he's talking about anymore, and he sighs and takes hold of my arm with one hand.

"Avoid making any sudden movements, sir," he says. "It wouldn't be good for me to lose my grip on you for the next few minutes."

A cold, white fog flows off of him and onto me, and we both immediately start to sink into the concrete below.

"This isn't really what you'd call regular metahuman insubstantiality," Phantasmo says. "We're being moved through the spirit world, so it'll take longer than it would if we just had to walk through a wall. So again, don't move away from me, or you might get lost. And you don't want to get lost out here."

"What the hell are we doing here?" I ask as we drop deeper into the concrete -- which is looking less and less like concrete by the second.

"Believe it or not, there's a mystical artifact in the mall's basement that I need to adjust to make sure it's still working right."

"Mystical artifact? You mean to tell me you're a sorcerer? I didn't realize Metro City had any sorcerers."

"No, sir, I'm not a sorcerer," he says. "Do you know anything about my powers?"

"Just that they're ghost-related," I say.

"More or less," he says. "The Cobra calls what I have 'Undead Charisma.' Ghosts just really like me. They'll do things to help me, and I can ask them to help me out with stuff. They'll block bullets shot at me, they'll carry me through the air, stuff like that. It's like having telekinesis and flight and forcefields and other powers, except it's the ghosts that have the abilities, not me. So it's not me using magic -- it's me asking the ghosts to do stuff that seems like magic. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah, I guess so," I say. "So what are we talking with this mystic artifact? Is this Council of Thaumaturges stuff here?"

"No, nothing that serious. If it was anything like that, I wouldn't touch it. I mean, there are a lot of weird, under-the-radar things that go on in Metro City, and the only reason I take care of this stuff  is because I'm usually the only person who can even sense them, much less have any chance of dealing with them successfully. If this were about serious big-time wizardry, I'd call in the experts -- trust me, I've done it before. I've got no interest in getting eaten by demons, I promise."

By now, we're starting to emerge out of the concrete/swirly stuff/other-dimensional wasteland that seems to be the spirit world and into... well, I think it's a broom closet.

"Is this a broom closet?" I ask. "What kind of magic artifacts are there in a broom closet?"

"It's not a broom closet," Phantasmo says. "It's a janitorial supply closet. And anyway, it's not a normal supply closet -- see, it's got no door, so the only way to get in is through the spirit world. It got magically sealed up years ago, somehow or other. I don't even know how."

"So what's so special here? Are we talking a Mop of Mystic Might or a Lysol Dragon or something?"

"Be serious. It's just that symbol on the wall."

There are some marks on a wall next to a shelf of glass-cleaner bottles -- they look to me like a bunch of random scratches arranged in a rough semi-circle.

"That's the artifact?" I ask.

"Sure is," he says. "Okay, guys, let's see what we can do about cleaning it up."

With that, a few ghostly wisps swirl away from him and start making quiet orbits around the chicken-scratches on the wall. There's an occasional spark of static electricity, but other than that, they mostly seem to be simply obscuring the symbol now.

"So how important is that symbol?" I ask. "What does it do, and what are they doing to it?"

"I understand it's a fairly minor little hex mark, but it's one with some really nice effects for the city," Phantasmo says. "We've got no idea how long the symbol has been there, or how long this room has been walled away, but basically, it keeps all zombies out of the mall."

"Oh, yeah? Does Metro City have a lot of zombie invasions then?"

"Not really, but when we do, it's nice to have somewhere safe to send people 'til we get things back under control."

"So what are your ghosts doing to it?"

"It seems to degrade over time," he says. "So it needs to be checked every few months to make sure it's still working correctly. I have some of the more mystic-attuned spirits check it over and make simple adjustments to keep it operational."

"But they're not really wizards, right? What happens if they make the wrong adjustments?"

"If that happens, a demon probably comes out, sir," he says. "And you beat it up and throw it back down whatever portal it came out of. Why do you think I brought you along, sir?"

Well, I guess we were lucky, because the ghosts finish swirling around the symbol, and no demons come out.

"So that will actually keep working for a while?"

"I think so," he says. "At least three months, maybe more."

"What happens if you're not able to get back here to fix it up, kid?" I ask. "Superheroing is a dangerous business, you know."

"Yes, sir, I'm very well aware. If I can't make it back and it degrades too much, it'll stop working, and zombies will be able to get into the mall. Obviously, we'd prefer to keep it working, but if it doesn't, we haven't lost that much. There are other artifacts in the city that would actually cause some serious damage if something bad happened to them -- this one we could actually afford to lose, if we had to."

"So why do they have you doing this stuff?" I ask. "No offense, son, but this seems like something that an experienced sorcerer should be dealing with, not someone who should be focused on studying and growing up."

"Okay, sir, first, I'm the only person in town who can do this," Phantasmo says, sounding more than a little irritated. "Metro City doesn't have any superhero wizards or sorcerers at all. We can't call the Council of Thaumaturges every few months just to do fine tuning on a few local artifacts. And second, I've been doing this for a while now. I've been through an alien invasion, an interdimensional crisis, and the last Atlantean war. I've helped fight off the Nowhere Men and Hell's Cabaret, and I've survived one-on-one battles against Splatter, Zoom Goon, Cacophony, and Janus! I can handle this just fine, sir -- ask any other hero in this town."

I can't say I'm convinced, but the Cobra wouldn't have sent me to meet him if she didn't trust him. I guess that'll have to be enough for now. After Phantasmo takes us back through the spirit world and up to the mall parking lot above, I head out to meet my last hero for tonight.

On the way, I run across a traffic accident and help move both cars to the side of the road, and I make sure everyone's okay 'til the police and ambulance show up. One of the accident victims takes my picture with his smartphone. I'm sure that'll show up in the paper tomorrow morning -- but at least it's a photo of me doing my job. Hopefully, it'll be a nice way to introduce Atlas to Metro City.

My final stop is on the south side of the city, on top of a burned-out apartment building in the Chesler Projects. Sitting on the edge of the building is a six-foot-tall Hispanic man in his upper-20s. He has a short, close-trimmed beard and wears a loose-fitting blue and gray costume with a blue and gray cowl. He's juggling three discarded beer bottles and humming tunelessly when I fly up.

"Hey there," I say. "Hope you haven't drunk all those already..."

"Nah, found 'em stacked up on the edge here," he says, still tossing the bottles in the air. "Looks like some of the local kids are using the roof as a party hangout. I'll have to try to scare 'em off next weekend."

"Maybe try to get their parents in on the situation, too?" I ask.

"I hope so, man," he says, catching all three bottles and dropping them onto the roof next to him. "But this is Chesler -- I'll be happy if I can at least get 'em to hang out someplace that won't be in danger of collapsing on 'em. Hey, how ya doin', amigo? I'm Penitente."

"I'm Atlas," I say as we shake hands. "Is the whole place really a no-hope neighborhood?"

"There's always hope," he says. "It just takes more work to bring it out in some places."

"Well, how can I help you out here?" I ask.

"Honestly," he says, "Don't go out of your way to patrol here. I'm not saying never come out here, but don't give it any special attention. Most of what Chesler and neighborhoods like it need can't really be delivered by superhumans. Folks here need better cops, better services, better opportunities, and better grocery stores. Superheroes are good, too, but people here already feel like they're being singled out for crap, and they don't need to think we're suspicious of them just because they're poor."

"Fair enough," I say. "Matches up with what I noticed about a lot of rough neighborhoods in Detroit, too."

"I'll probably give you a call from time to time, too," Penitente says. "And not just for crimefighting stuff. The local schoolkids all love getting to meet superheroes."

"Okay, and remember, I'll be more than happy to help you with crimefighting, too," I say. "It can't be easy out here with no powers at all."

He shrugs. "There are always challenges. Challenges are there to be overcome."

"That's easy to say, but it's another thing entirely when you're facing down metahuman criminals. So please let me know if you need help."

"I will, I promise," he says. "But in the past month, I've beaten down Shakedown, the Jackal, and Crushbug. I do alright, even without powers. And it's not like you haven't worked with unpowered heroes in the Assembly, right? You worked with Black Scourge, Flagwaver, Chasseur, and the Socialite, didn't you?"

I may have hesitated a bit too long before responding. "Well, you see..."

"Okay, wait, don't say anything else," he interrupts. "Believe it or not, I'm not insulted. I've had to deal with the same attitude before, from almost every other hero in this town. But they all accept what I can do now. Even the Cobra. Sure, I can't pick up a tank, I can't run at the speed of sound, I can't fly, but I can stand shoulder to shoulder with any other superhero in the city, I guarantee you. You may not believe it now, but you will, my man. Bet money on it."

"Alright, then, they tell me you're the real deal," I say. "I'm willing to accept that -- at least for now. But really, any time you're over your head, I'd be glad to help."

"Okay, sure," Penitente says. "Just remember -- you can call on me when you need help, too. Oh, and man, you should be thankful the Black Scourge never heard you slagging unpowered heroes. That guy was loco when he thought he wasn't getting respect."

I start to tell him that I nearly never dealt with the Black Scourge -- hell, I was in the same room with him about six times, and he never spoke to me -- when we hear a woman scream in the street below.

I'm the first to her -- she's a young Hispanic woman in a blind panic. And unfortunately, she doesn't seem to know any English, and I don't know more than a word or two in Spanish. (Yes, I'm Hispanic, but I'm eighth-generation American -- not even my grandparents can speak anything but English.)

Luckily, Penitente is there less than 20 seconds later, and he seems to be pretty fluent in Spanish. After another minute of back-and-forth that I can't understand a word of, Penitente nods to me and says, "She's homeless, and someone abducted her son. There's a bodega two blocks north that's open all night -- could you fly her there while I call the cops? I'll wait for you back here."

A two-block fight generally takes about five seconds for me, but I slow it down to 20 seconds, to make sure she's comfortable. I drop her off, tell the clerk the cops are on the way, and ask him to make sure she doesn't leave. I take the five-second flight back in time to hear Penitente finish his call to the police.

As he shuts the phone down, he says, "They're on the way, but they never get to Chesler very quickly. We'll be lucky if they make it here in 15 minutes. I'm betting it'll take a half-hour, and I don't wanna give the abductor that much of a head start, you hear me?"

"Agreed," I say. "This is your turf -- what do you need from me?"

"Okay, tell me you got the kind of sensory abilities all you flying tanks always seem to have."

"Sorry," I say. "My vision and hearing are just barely into the superhuman range, and I don't have anything like X-ray vision, telescopic hearing, or the ability to sniff out a perp like a bloodhound."

"Crap," he says, then swings around in a tight circle, looking around the area. "Okay, everything happened fast, so no time to run far."

"We didn't see anyone but the mother when we got here," I say. "And it looks like there are four, maybe five apartment buildings within running distance. You wanna pick one to start searching?"

"No," Penitente says, smiling suddenly. He points out a sewer manhole in the middle of the street. One edge of the manhole cover isn't flush with the level of the street. "You feel up to checking out Metro City's sewers, Atlas?"

Audra is never going to touch any of my laundry for the rest of my life.

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