Petrified. Literally. | Copper Knights & Granite Men (Part 1)
Previous Introducing the Ascension Epoch
Story: Michael DiBaggio | Illustrations: Shell Presto
Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a superhero.
When I was five years old, I was with my aunt at the bank when the bank got robbed. We didn’t even realize it had happened, but then the cretins wrecked their getaway car and ran back inside, waving guns everywhere. They actually held us hostage. It was nuts! Poor Aunt Carol was hysterical, but I was mad. They kept telling everyone not to look at them even though they wore masks. They were afraid and didn’t want us to notice. But I knew. And I glared at them.
Pretty soon the Troubleshooters showed up. And not just any bunch of Troubleshooters, among them was the Target himself. The original.
He told them he was going to come in to talk to them. They shouted that he’d better not try it, but Target said he was coming in anyway, and he did. He laid down his pistol outside the front door so they could see it, then he walked in, calm as could be, hands held up. And he smiled at me. The guy had two pistols and a shotgun aimed at him, and he smiled.
They’d made a mistake, he told them, but there was no point in making it worse. “You know you can’t get away now, so it’s time to be men and face the consequences.”
My right hand to God, those were his exact words.
Everyone held their breath. It was so tense, but the Target never flinched.
Then the first guy lowered his shotgun and started blubbering an apology. The boss robber screamed at him, but then the third guy dropped his pistol, too. Next thing I knew, Target elbowed their armed boss in the face, knocked the gun out of his hand, and beat the hell out of him.
Aunt Carol tried to cover my eyes, but I saw it all, and I never forgot.
At first, my folks thought it was cute when I’d say I wanted to be a vigilante. But when I kept saying that into my teens, people started to worry. My priest mocked me, and the preceptors at school told me I was being silly. My parents wagged their fingers, their voices full of disapproval: “Sebastian, they’re as bad as the crooks they go after! Don’t you know how often they get killed?”
They were all hypocrites. I knew how they admired the Sentinel. I noticed that look of envy whenever they saw someone zipping across the sky under their own power. I remembered how Aunt Carol got all weak-kneed and doe-eyed when the Target winked at her. And I went on imagining myself immolating vampires like the Flame, or pulling babies out of burning buildings like Web Wonder (before he became a monster).
But I knew they were right about one thing: it was a tough gig without special powers, and I didn’t have any. Nobody in my family was a talent either—at least so far as anyone would tell me. Sure, there were non-talent vigilantes and lots of mystery men in days of yore, but making that work was almost impossible. Eventually, I started thinking about other things, even if I never totally put it out of my mind.
Then I turned 15, and puberty gave me something besides acne and a fear of tight shorts.
A woman at the monorail station left her notebook on the bench next to me. I tried to return it to her, but when I picked it up, I could see and hear and even smell things that I knew weren’t really there. Disconnected memories of thoughts I’d never had buzzed around my skull. It was like living in stereo, one part of me in the terminal, another part of me hitching a ride inside this lady’s brain.
I dropped the notebook and those memories went away; when I picked it up again, they came back, too.
It’s called Psychometry. If telepathy was the prom queen, psychometry would be her homely sister that nobody ever asks to the dance. You can’t read minds, but you pick up the psychic residue they leave on other objects. Usually, that’s nothing at all, but sometimes the object is associated with something really traumatic (like a murder weapon) or impressed on it by the sheer psychic weight of lots of people (like a public bathroom—yick). The former can be overwhelming while the latter is just a big non-linear jumble of sights and feelings you can’t make sense of.
Yeah. I wanted to roll two 10-sided dice and pick a new power from the list, but it doesn’t work that way.
Worse, my psychometry was pretty low grade: Talent Level 3 on the modified Lowe-Silence scale. This meant I could consistently pick up the really strong signals, but the rest was a crap shoot. The cute lab tech at Pitt’s Reich Center said that was a blessing. She told me about some big-time sensitives she’d met who had to wear gloves all the time, and a particularly bad case, shrouded in a perpetual bubble of psychic white noise, who wouldn’t communicate with his family anymore.
But that was no comfort to me. I can’t tell you how frustrated I was knowing that I won the genetic lottery for a $5 jackpot. I was a dud, a spoon-bender, unable even to provoke real curiosity. I was that loser at the bar who tried to impress chicks by wiggling his ears or pretending he’s only 6 years old because he was born on February 29th.
For a while, the limit of my ambitions were to fondle towels from the girls’ locker room or contact-snooping on strangers at restaurants. But then I got tired of the cheap voyeurism and attempts to live vicariously through utterly boring people. I told myself: “You know what? Most people don’t even get psychometry. Why not use the gift? Why not be a superhero after all?”
I went back to lifting and started running. I read biographies of the greats. Body and mind were harnessed for my true purpose.
But then I started to doubt myself. What if everyone was right? What if I got killed? Was I completely crazy?
There were a hundred voices who would have talked me out of it. I needed to find the one who would talk me into it.
It was the second week of February and pitchers and catchers were reporting to spring training down in sunny Texas and Florida. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, it was still cold as Hell if Hell got cold, so our first practices were indoors. In a corner of the St. Bonaventure gymnasium, two of my friends and I played pepper to shake out the cobwebs.
The baseball, a survivor from last year and now more a brownish yellow than white, skipped erratically off the laminated hardwood and flew toward my hip at an awkward angle. I shifted down and swept my glove across my body, snatching the ball with a leathery pop, then side-lobbed the ball back at Alex Shepherd.
Alex was my best friend. He was recklessly loyal and, to be honest, a bit of an adrenaline junky. If it was too dangerous, he wanted to do it: parkour, skydiving, train-hopping, you name it. If there was one person in the whole world I could count on to back me, it was him. And if even he said I was nuts, then I’d reconsider.
His forearms, thick as a knotted rope, rippled with every compact swing as he drove the ball back at us. Alex was taller than me and more athletic but not as good-looking; he had had his nose broken one time too many in the boxing ring.
“Take it—yow!—easy!” Ben, Alex’s younger brother, grimaced as the ball rocketed off his hip. He rubbed the tender spot and shot a dirty look over his shoulder as he trotted off to get the ball.
“Yeah, man, we’re only twenty feet away,” I said. “Haven’t you ever played pepper before?”
“We tried once,” Alex answered, slanting the aluminum bat over his shoulder. “Then the groundskeeper yelled at us, ‘Can’t you delinquents read?’ he said. There was this big ‘No Pepper’ sign painted on the wall.”
“If pepper is outlawed, only outlaws will play pepper.” I took a minute to wipe away the hair plastered to my sweaty forehead and then told them, apropos of nothing, “I’ve decided to become a vigilante.”
The Shepherd brothers looked at me blankly, the tangential remark seeming to have disabled conscious thought.
I nodded thoughtfully and added, with a practiced nonchalance, “What do you think about the name Doom Specter?”
Alex and Ben looked at each other and smiled.
“Sweet idea!” Ben exclaimed.
Alex high-fived me. “Yeah, man, good name.”
The argument was settled.
That very night, I donned my first crude costume: an old hooded sweatshirt, rip-stop pants, and a wool ski mask that made my nose itch. I left my house by my bedroom window—not because I had to, but because it was more dramatic. I had a can of pepper spray and my pop’s old brass knuckles for punishing thugs, plus a bundle of zip ties to tie them up when I finished. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I couldn’t care less. Somewhere out on those dark streets lurked thieves and murderers, arsonists and rapists, and tonight they were prey for the Doom Specter.
Well, Doom Specter’s prey slept soundly that night.
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I had the vague idea that walking a beat around my neighborhood would be enough, and if not, then psychometry would fill in the gaps. It was a laughably stupid idea. Shadyside was tranquil, safe. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had so much as keyed a car on my block.
I tuned into the police scanners with my mobi. Sure enough, I started to hear about burglaries and shootings—on the other side of the city.
The next weekend, I patrolled on my bike and wore down both my legs and the electric motor reacting to distant reports of crime. If I was lucky, I’d arrive just in time to see one of the Troubleshooter wagons drive off. A couple times, even the worthless city cops beat me to the scene. Talk about humiliation.
Once, there was a fire call only twelve blocks away. It was late and I’d already run down the battery, but I pedaled furiously, uphill the whole way. I was three blocks away, panting and sweating, when the fire trucks passed me.
I was discouraged but not defeated. If Doom Specter couldn’t save the day, maybe he could solve a few mysteries. Disappearances, impossible robberies, cases the patrol companies and private detectives had given up on. I could be the next Sherlock Holmes or, more appropriately, the next Carnacki.
Amazingly, most people were strangely reticent about talking to a guy in a ski mask. Added to that, my ESP was unreliable. The psychic detective angle wasn’t panning out either.
Three weeks into it, I was really frustrated. I was spoiling for a fight, and so I found one: three punks spray painting the walls of an old glass factory. Admittedly, the building was a burned-out husk, and in retrospect, a few more dirty limericks and flaming penises might have even improved the look of the place, but I tell you right then I just didn’t care. I threaded my fingers through the brass knuckles and leaped out of the bush, screaming at the top of my lungs: “Run for your lives, scumbags!”
I went right for the biggest one, throwing hands and feet, knees and elbows. Glass broke, bricks flew, blood sprayed. He went down.
But there were three of them and only one of me, and my psychometry sure as hell wasn’t going to even the score.
But something else did.
I didn’t recognize the face whose glassy eyes, half-occulted behind puffy and purple sockets, stared through me. I blinked twice and fumbled for the light switch, already squinting in anticipation of the harsh glare.
The light rinsed away the violet shadows that made the face seem so much older and more frail than the one I expected. I saw the familiar inflection point of my cheek beneath the ragged laceration that ran from my left eye to the hinge of my jaw, and I could see that it was my mouth beneath the lumpy abrasions and dried brown blood that camouflaged it. My distant stare sharpened at this recognition of my battered face in the mirror, and at once the pain sharpened along with it. My sweaty hands clamped around the edge of the sink as my head slumped forward, queasy. Strings of bloody saliva, dark and syrupy, trickled from my lips.
I probed the tender interior of my mouth with my tongue, testing whether any of my teeth were loose, carefully avoiding the bloody hole that my rattling molars had torn inside my cheek. I’d already checked at least five times since I pulled myself off the pavement using the same aluminum pipe I’d been beaten with as a crutch. Finally satisfied that an emergency trip to the dentist needn’t be added to my list of concerns, I turned on the faucet and let the cascade of cold water wash over the nape of my neck.
“Jesus!” Alex groaned. “You’re leaking blood on the towels! If my mom was here, she’d lose it!”
I felt guilty about using his bathroom as a dispensary, but his house was a half mile closer than mine, and I wasn’t entirely confident I’d make it all the way back home on my own. Plus, there was the dimly remembered fact that his parents were gone somewhere, a second honeymoon in Cuba or something. With my father’s insomnia, not to mention my sister’s nosiness, it wouldn’t have been possible to clean up without being noticed at home.
“Swallow a couple of these when you’re done,” Alex said, rattling a small bottle of Ibuprofen next to my ear. When I didn’t answer, he manually curled my fingers around the bottle.
“You can still see straight, can’t you? Does anything feel broken?” he asked, tearing open a bag of cotton balls to wet with hydrogen peroxide.
I turned my head toward him in answer to the first question, and then grimaced in pain as the streaming water found a paper-thin cut in my scalp that I hadn’t noticed before.
“Knee’s worse than anything,” I said. “Landed on it when I fell.”
“I have ice packs you can take with you. What’s that stuff all over your pants?”
“Paint.” I lifted my head out of the water and looked myself over again. ‘You’re going to need a lot of ice,’ I thought. I looked the way my sister Olivia looked after getting stung by a wasp, right before her eyes swelled completely shut.
“Paint?” Alex’s eyebrows went up. “They threw paint on you?”
I shook my head, which knocked off my equilibrium and set my vision spinning. I had to grab hold of the sink to steady myself again. Alex grabbed my shoulder and urged me to sit down before I fell over and spilled the rest of my skull all over his parents’ newly remodeled bathroom.
“No. It was me,” I told him as I slumped down onto the toilet. “I blew up their spray cans—one of them in his hands. I blew them up with my mind. Just by thinking about it. They ran like hell!”
I massaged my split knuckles as I reminisced. “It was something else, man. A real spectacle.”
“Yow, that’s an ugly cut. It might need stitching,” Alex remarked. He must have thought I was delirious.
I sat quiet for a moment and just smiled. “I think,” my voice quavered with excitement, “I think I have a real talent now.”
“I think you’ve been hit in the head and you’re babbling.”
“Oh yeah?” I cocked my head toward the running faucet and the water stopped.
“Holy shit,” Alex muttered. “Did you do that?”
My smile bloomed into an exuberant, bloody-toothed grin. I let the water flow again.
I’d gotten to roll the dice again, and this time, I picked a winner. “Next time, it’ll be different,” I said.
Now, you might have looked at me and said, “Listen buddy, you just got your ass handed to you over something really stupid,” and you’d be right. But that was irrelevant. I was on the right track; the big man upstairs was looking out for me, rooting for me. I just needed a little more: more resources, more gear, more preparation. Most of all, I needed reinforcements.
“Yeah. Next time,” I said. “I could use someone to watch my back, though.”
Alex thought it over. “Yeah. Sure, why not?”
“I’ve actually been thinking about it for a while. Besides, you obviously need somebody who can fight. I even thought of a killer name: The Mysterious X!”
I blinked. “Why?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you think that’s a good name?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
I waved my hand, changed the subject. “Now that you mention it, I think it’s time I retired Doom Spectre. It never felt quite right, and now I have a talent that suggests some good names—”
“Water Wizard,” he suggested.
I snorted. “You’re terrible at this.”
“Well, then what?
My name is Sebastian Pereira. But you can call me Torrent.
The story you’ve just read is an excerpt from After Dark, a novel of teenage superheroics on the eerie side of Pittsburgh. Buy the book online or learn about the other ways you can support us.