Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Minor Superhero, at Home after His Series Ends

He has a superhero name. It’s as stupid as every other superhero name. It’s not something you can comfortably call another person in casual conversation. Just try to have a normal-sounding talk with some of the guys in the Liberty Force. “So, hello, uh, Pile-Driver Man. And, how are you doing, Dynamic Woman?” You can’t. You honestly can’t. You need to have a superhero name, and so he has one, bestowed upon him by others when he lagged too long in coming up with one for himself. It still seems vainglorious to him. He has always felt silly whenever other superheroes call him by it. He always feels like the speaker must be talking to someone else, and he finds he must resist the temptation to look over his shoulder, to find the real person being spoken to. It is, in short, exactly like the time his future wife, a stranger at the time, said hi. He wasn’t the guy such a pretty girl would be talking to. When she made it clear that, yes, she was speaking to him, he was sure that she must have been making a mistake. Similarly, it seems a mistake for these other superheroes to treat him as colleague and equal, and to call him by that name. It’s just something he has to live with. You need a name to get on the registry, just like you need a costume. But mostly, he’s Bob.

Bob was struck by a bolt of energy, coming down out of the clear blue sky. The rationale for this was not immediately evident. He found out after he had exactly ten adventures, not including team-ups. There were clues and portents before that, but the tenth adventure culminated with the unveiling of his secret origin. He barely thinks about those shocking revelations, nowadays, mostly because he somehow stopped having regular adventures not long after that.

These days the crises just don’t seem to involve him all that much. Usually he gets roped in during one of those mammoth cattle calls where hundreds of people dressed in colorful outfits, including quite a few others who also haven’t been around for a while, must all face the same generalized threat. He’s never been a pivotal factor in any of these gatherings, but he knows that his presence is appreciated, and it’s always healthy to keep a hand in. Still, his origin never really comes up, at any such times, and on those occasions when he must refer to it in conversation, it’s easier to just say that a bolt of energy came out of the clear blue sky, and leave it at that. It’s less of a backstory to carry around.

The minor superhero’s powers aren’t world-shaking. He can run a thirty-second mile, lift half a ton, shrug off bullets, and fly. These are all pretty amazing things to be able to do, but on the numeric scale superheroes use between themselves to rank relative power levels, with the well-funded athletic vigilantes being ones and twos, and the alien demigods being nines and tens, he’s a four. Somehow, it works out, it’s all those guys at both ends of the spectrum who get all the attention, and all the ones in the middle whose careers just peter out after not very long. It would be nice, he supposes, to be one of those guys who can clean toxic substances off their indestructible costumes by taking a quick flight into the sun and back. He used to envy those guys. But as time has gone on, he’s realized that a four is ideal positioning. The athletes have to spend six hours a day just running on treadmills and lifting weights to prepare themselves for a mere four hours of activity at night, and even then, they still spend much of their lives laid up in traction. And the demigods are always busy stopping interdimensional incursions and alien invasion fleets, one infinite crisis after another, and it’s a big deal for them to just enjoy a leisurely lunch. By contrast, the minor superhero has a power set that’s self-sustaining, and limitations that spare him from being on call every time the sky starts changing colors. He has free time and friends and a life refreshingly free of angst.

A couple of times, during those ten adventures when he was constantly busy and looked like he always would be constantly busy, the minor superhero saved the city from destruction. In both cases, he was out wearing his street clothes, being Bob, when he happened to drift into some situation where the city was in imminent danger of being destroyed. The unlikelihood of this impressed him at the time. How long had he been Bob? How rarely in his everyday life had he just happened to stumble across some citywide menace? Never, that’s how often. But on those occasions, mere weeks after acquiring a power set and a costume and a superhero name, he just happened to run across something deserving of investigation that by the end of the day found him saving the city with seconds to spare. This, to him, was a suspicious level of synchronicity. And for it to happen twice, a few weeks apart, each circumstance wholly unrelated to the other, was even more ridiculous. He wondered, for a while, if this was what his life was always going to be like.

He talked to some of the more established folks, the ones who for all their resolute looks and unflappable manners still seemed to possess haunted looks, and they reported that their lives had run on such schedules, without surcease, for years. He was frankly terrified. But then he met another of the minor guys, who took him aside and said, “Don’t worry. After a while you’ll notice that it’s somehow always the same five or six folks it happens to. If you don’t join a team, your life will calm down after a dozen adventures at most.” And this is what happened. He’s grateful. Being a superhero, even only once a twice a year during one of those cattle calls, is cool. Being one constantly is a pain in the ass. You’d have to be crazy to want that tsuris in your life.

Then, of course, even if you do keep your hand in, there’s the question of just how much responsibility you want to juggle on a daily basis. Forget the demigods who exist to protect the entire world from those threats that seem to arrive all the time, now. Given who and what they are, this is what they’re obliged to do. It’s almost obscene for them to concern themselves with, you know, neighborhood muggings. But for those below that level, there are guys, oddly enough including some of the athletes, who take personal responsibility for stopping not some but all the respective crime in their cities. “This city is MINE,” those guys say, and they seem to take it seriously, to the point where they never relax at all. It’s a seriously over-developed sense of responsibility. Other guys, more grounded, just patrol their own neighborhoods. This still keeps them busy, but they do sometimes manage to get through an evening with their loved ones without being called to battle. You do what you can do, especially when, as in the minor superhero’s case, fate stops constantly tossing you together with these massive threats. He finds that he’s proud of his past contributions, and of his occasional current ones, but for the most part finds he doesn’t miss the constant peril, the shouted purple declarations on the part of both good guys and bad guys, and especially the being thrown through walls; that’s something you don’t need all that much of, honestly, before you reach your lifetime saturation point. But since it’s a good thing to keep your hand in, what the minor superhero mostly protects these days is his own apartment building.

The minor superhero lives in a ten-story apartment building somewhere on the outskirts of the city. It’s a nice place, home to about 130 people, ranging from young professionals to retirees. They all know that he’s not just a superhero but the official superhero of the building, a position that gets him free rent in exchange for being on call. It is a similar position to being the super, and indeed, one thing the actual super likes to complain about in a good-natured way is how the presence of a guy with powers prevents tenants from just using the convenient term, “super,” when they must instead say the whole word, either “superintendent” or “superhero.” No simple declarative statements that you’re going to call the super, not in this building! You must specify! If you have a plumbing problem, you call one super. If there’s a creepy guy eying the kids in the playground, you call the other. At least that’s the theory. Both supers have intervened when neighborhood vandals tried to steal someone’s ten-speed from the bike rack; both supers have helped some of the older folks carry the groceries. They don’t argue over turf. No “This is MY building!” for them. Honestly, if somebody’s new microwave needs hauling, the minor superhero is perfectly happy to do it. If somebody who doesn’t belong in the building is hassling women in the elevators, the superintendent is just as much at home dealing with the problem. The minor superhero sees his job as just making life easier for his neighbors, and honestly, he’s spoken to a couple of the demigods and knows that they secretly feel the same way. But he, at least, gets to know them. They invite him and his wife to dinner, sometimes. He invites their kids to his son’s birthday party. It’s cozy. And if he feels uncomfortable, sometimes, doing his visible rounds, which is to say, either purposefully striding the halls to let evil-doers know that he is present, or standing on the rooftop during lightning storms so that the occasional bolts can backlight him dramatically, well, that is part of his employment agreement, his chest emblem as much a mark of his position in life as the superintendent’s green uniform and his little circular name-badge reading Otis.

The other tenants have peace of mind. There were worries, at the start, that some super-villain would take Bob’s vow to protect the building as a direct provocation, and target it with death-rays, or something. This has, alas, not been a totally unfounded fear. There was a giant robot, striding down the boulevard with murder in its fearsome glowing eyes, just that one time. But this is the kind of thing that happens to buildings all over the city, and the minor superhero ripped its head off and extracted the mad-scientist controller with so little difficulty that he still didn’t list the encounter as one of his iconic ten adventures. For the most part, the minor superhero is like a fire-ax, displayed behind glass. He’s there in case something does happen. If the city is overrun by reptilian demons intent on devouring the souls of the unwary, well, the portal over midtown is something that can be taken care of by one of the demigods, and the mass panic in the streets can be addressed by the various super-groups, but unless he is specifically called—and, being a level four, he likely won’t be—it’s sufficient to stand in the doorway like Gandalf and say, “You will not pass!” So far, no such incursions have penetrated the building by so much as a single broken window. He is proud of this. He knows he’s making a difference, and it is a measure of his character that he takes absolutely no more satisfaction in these flashy moments than he does in stopping that bad case of domestic violence in 4C, or in helping little Tommy Ramirez with his math. “We all do what we can,” he says, “whatever we can.” And he finds this as fine a battle cry as he needs.

The minor superhero does have an archenemy, though. Everybody has an archenemy, a constant that is not just true of superheroes, but of everyday human beings. Your archenemy may not build giant death rays to melt your city into slag, but he or she might look on you with malice, as someone whose happiness needs to be blighted, whose ambitions need to be mocked, whose accomplishments need to be denigrated. On the level of normal raggedy human beings, archenemies rarely rise above the level of bullies.

The minor superhero’s archenemy is an actual mad scientist: not a Nazi mad scientist, mind you (the minor superhero hates that kind), but an ex-pharmacist, busted from his profession for dispensing some of his narcotics off the books. In place of building giant robots, he illegally patches into cable. In place of robbing banks, he plays his TV too loud. Like many supervillains, he has a last name that sounded ominous from birth, that has become part of his nom de guerre. You would laugh if you heard that name, at the thought of an actual human being going through life with that name. You would think it a name suitable only for a person who would someday become a social irritant. This is the way it works out, in the business. If your last name is some synonym for Evil, you become Evil. He is Evil. He plots for the destruction of the minor superhero. One or two of his minor plots—one among them starting up a petition among his fellow tenants, trying to eliminate the minor superhero’s rent subsidy—have come to naught, and it has only twisted him further. He has wildly askew Einsteinian hair and Coke-bottle glasses and a bottomless hatred of all that is good and decent and at night his neighbors can sometimes hear him ranting about how nothing will keep him from his revenge, nothing. So far, the most substantive confrontations between him and the minor superhero have involved the hero politely knocking on his door to deliver some mismarked mail. Certainly, the final confrontation is yet to come. But that is the thing about both minor superheroes and minor supervillains. Minor superheroes are just good neighbors. Minor supervillains are just the cranky and vaguely creepy guy in 7D. Sometimes this becomes a major battle, and this is the consummation some of the neighbors expect and anticipate with something like longing. But it’s not always a clash of titans. More often, it’s just some of life’s bullshit.

The minor superhero is on top of it. He is comfortable with this being as much as he needs to be on top of. He’s happy. And tonight, as the skies change colors over midtown and the city is rocked by the sound of one of the demigods battling some cosmic menace rippling with coruscating energies beyond all imagination, he is ready for the call, but otherwise content at home, aware that no harm will come to those under his protection, not on his watch.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro. A sixty-year old bearded white male showing extreme love for a cat of siamese ancestry.

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). The audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media) features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” In 2022 he came out with two collections, his The Author’s Wife Vs. The Giant Robot and his thirtieth book, A Touch of Strange. Adam lives in Florida with a pair of chaotic paladin cats.