“I’m Will, and I used to be a superhero.”
The voices reverberated in Will’s skull. He had to fight back a groan until his head stopped throbbing. He told the others to cut him off once he got too drunk, but apparently trusting your sobriety to people capable of chugging kegs isn’t the best idea. He vaguely remembered someone ordering shots at about 2, and he hoped that he had passed out after that. Now, he was hung over standing in a ring of people who had all made the same big mistake. The same mistake he’d made. They decided they wanted to be superheroes.
They were in a local gym this week. Next week they would probably meet up in a church or rent out a meeting hall. The group wasn’t exactly well known, but it was still an easy target. These people were trying to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives, and at this point it wouldn’t take much to push them over the edge.
He adjusted his sunglasses and glanced around the room. He was the oldest one here by at least five years. Most of the people who ended up these things were kids who didn’t understand the cost of the job. He counted two college students who were afraid of flunking, two in their mid-twenties who probably couldn’t hold a job and keep this up, one whose age he couldn’t identify, and a 13 year old whose mother probably forced him to come to keep him out of trouble.
Then there was him, William Writer, a man in his late thirties. He had quit being a hero a couple years back, but a friend had convinced him that he shouldn’t stop helping people. So here he was, helping another group of people to make the same decision he had. He’d lost track of how many it had been; he’d had at least a meeting a week for the last 2 years, but the timing always changed. He’d had one group who’d all decided to quit after the first real day, another that lasted 2 months, only two of them had quit, most of the rest were already dead.
The problem was there were too many people who saw rich heroes and assumed that being a hero would make them rich. Or maybe they thought that karma would keep their grades up when they spent their nights on rooftops. A few just thought that being a hero would be cool. After a while he had started to see the patterns. After a while he wished he hadn’t.
15% of heroes die in their first year. The only reason numbers weren’t higher was because the vets tried to keep an eye out for upstarts in over their heads. 5% quit after their first month. Another 30% drop out before their first year is up. If you make it that long, then there’s a 75% chance you’ll live until your thirty, 65% that you’ll make it to 40. Only three heroes have lived past 60, and one of them hasn’t aged since he was 24.
Only a few heroes drop out of the business after they turn 30, less than 3% actually. Most of them find that they couldn’t stay out of it even if they tried. They end up throwing themselves in front of a bullet, or pushing a kid out from under a falling building, and they die with a smile on their face.
Some people are just born to be heroes.
Will knew he wasn’t one of them.
There were a few people who still disagreed.
All of these kids had heard of who he used to be, but all of them probably thought he was dead. One or two might assume he’s recovering in some secret lab or playing the night shift in some war-torn country, but after a few more years they would realize that he wasn’t coming back.
And everyone knows heroes don’t retire.
If he asked, these kids would say he’d been doing this for ten years and that he’d never been a hero for long enough to have his name spread around.
But that’s what he wanted them to think. He had disappeared, he had left the business, and he wanted it to stay that way.
Will cleared his throat and made sure his voice wasn’t going to slur. “You’re all here to try to decide if you want to continue being heroes, or if you want to quit. There is no shame in that, most of the heroes you see on TV have had their doubts, and they had to fight through them on their own. Groups like this exist to make sure you don’t have to. This works like most support groups, you go in order, you state your name-hero only please, you wear masks for a reason-your power and why you’re here. Eventually you’ll all get your chance to tell your story. You don’t have to tell us everything, but at the very least you need to say why you don’t think you should keep being a hero. Some of you will hear another person’s story and realize that you want to stay in, but most of you will probably want to quit. I’m here to make sure you understand that quitting is not the wrong choice, it is your choice.”
Will nodded to his left. One of the college students stood up; he had blonde hair trimmed down, just short of a buzz cut. He had on a pair of dark wrap-around goggles that held his mask in place. (‘High quality, they look like the ones Vulcan handed out the last time Eclipse came around, but these are older. He probably jacked them from the science lab at school. Lord knows they charge enough to justify it.’) The grey mask reached down to his dark red shirt, with a navy blue dragon circling around his chest. (‘Not skintight, this kid got the memo after Hustler started figuring out a few heroes’ builds. Looks custom made, he’s got money, or he knows a good seamstress.’) His black pants were another story. (‘Looks like the weave they use on bungee-cords, he has to move around a lot.’) The kid glanced nervously around the room.
Will nodded at him and looked around to make sure nobody was going to interrupt.
He stood up and shuffled his feet beneath him. “I’m Burnout, I manipulate fire, blue fire, and I don’t think I can be a superhero anymore.”
Will could see his eyes darting beneath his goggles. The anxiety practically rolled off of him in waves. He put a kind smile on his face and nodded. Burnout sat down in a hurry. He seemed relieved that no one was looking at him anymore.
The woman next to Burnout stood up. She held herself regally but Will noticed slight tremors in her hands. (‘Very nervous, but used to hiding it. Business woman probably, just high enough up the ladder to take the blame on everyone below her without being able to do anything about it. She’s had to deal with criticism a lot. She might be difficult later on.’) She had on a full biker helmet, red with black roses crawling across it, but there were strands of burgundy hair peeking out from under its edges. (‘She controls her hair, understands it can be a liability, but she won’t cut it. Possibly trying to avoid the attention it would bring. More likely too proud of her hair to cut it short, judging by posture.’) She wore matching olive green leather vest and pants, leaving her arms bare, but they were thicker than they should have been. (‘Reinforced I think. Wouldn’t do anything against a bullet but should slow down most knives. She likes to stay close to her opponent, keep it in her range.’)
She coughed; it hid the nervous breaths she was taking. “You may call me Hawthorn. I have short range floromantic powers. My life has been spiraling out of control ever since I became a hero, and I do not think that I can handle the pressure for much longer.”
She sat down quickly and without ceremony. Will noted the way she was bouncing her foot and stared at the next person.
He stood up unhurriedly. His helmet covered his head completely, the visor over his eyes glowed a bright green and the plate covering his mouth vibrated as he breathed. (‘He wears the suit well. It was either designed for him or he built it himself.’) Will could spot the slots along his suit that hid his weapons, a few on his arms, more in his chest, only one or two on his legs. Will noted his backpack and assumed it was a distraction. (‘Unlikely he keeps the power source that open. It’s probably trapped. Most mechers keep the power source near their head or heart, places they’re likely to defend anyway without worrying about giving away a weak point.’) The whole getup was panted in white and gray camouflage.
The voice that came out of the suit was very robotic, masking any obvious accent. “Mach. I fight using this combat suit, but I can feel myself reaching my limits. I think that if I don’t stop fighting, I’m going to hit a wall I can’t break through without doing something drastic.”
Will noticed a few of the others avoiding the eye of the suit. It wasn’t an uncommon feeling he knew, but it usually wasn’t enough to make you want to quit. He decided Mach might need to be watched more closely.
The other college kid was next. He wasn’t wearing a mask, but that didn’t make him unique. (‘He doesn’t feel like someone who changes appearance. I think he’s trying to pull a double bluff. Make people assume he does something special to look different from his civvie side; anyone who looks exactly like him would be ruled out as a coincidence or an imitator. He planned on getting famous fast.’) His outfit looked almost entirely store bought, something you could get just about anywhere. He’d made some modifications, added a spade symbol to his jacket and gloves.
“Allspades. I’m strong.” He didn’t even bother to stand up.
The child immediately jumped to his feet. (‘Dammit. He’s hyper. Please don’t be a runner, please don’t be a runner.’) He had on what looked like a toy helmet. It was obviously thick and durable, but it didn’t cover his face, sort of like a pilot’s helmet without the mask or lenses, but it had a v-shaped visor that extended down to his nose. The helmet was white and the visor was tinted a dark enough red to hide his eyes; between that and his hair being covered it definitely hid any noticeable features. His outfit was way more expensive than someone his age would normally have. Will looked it over and was 80% sure it was a fully functional stock car racing uniform shrunk down to fit the kid. It kept up the red and white scheme with two crimson wings on his chest. (‘Yep, he’s a runner. I’m gonna need to come to these things drunker if this kid’s anything like the others.’)
“Hello, everyone-one. I am the Red Racer-cer, and I am here because my sister found out about me-me and decided I should come-come.” (‘Definitely a runner, his vocal cords are still overcompensating for the faster neural impulses. He should be fine before school starts up again. But…his sister? Maybe his parents don’t know about this yet. Could be they work late or something.’)
The last of them stood up. Will looked at him like he had all the others, but something was wrong. He tried to focus on his face, his hair, anything, but his eyes kept slipping, forcing themselves away from him. (‘Is that his power? It’s not that I don’t know he’s there, but everything about him seems…liquid. I can’t get a good look at him. This one’s actually something rare.’) He wore no costume. His power sufficed. (‘I wonder if it keeps up when he’s knocked out.’)
“I am Unimportant. I have come to find there is a risk when I use my powers for too long. I do not know if the risk is worth it.” His voice was hollow. It had no trace of accent. It was almost robotic. (‘I’m actually getting nothing from him. This is pretty impressive. It’s been years since someone’s pulled that off.’)
Will made a few more notes on his clipboard and stood up once again. He looked each of his new wards in the eyes and cleared his throat. “I’m not going to lie to you. Becoming a hero is a hard choice, quitting is even harder. You should all remember something important. The purpose of this group isn’t to encourage you one way or the other. I will try to show you the benefits of both sides. But remember this, you chose to come here, you have your doubts. If you still have them at the end of our meetings then you shouldn’t get back in. Trust me when I say that if you do, you will die.” He looked around the room to gauge their reactions once again. Most of them looked nervous. Red Racer seemed as hyper as ever, but he knew better than to judge Runners that easily, and Unimportant stayed perfectly still, but he didn’t know if that was him or his power. “Tonight was just the introductions. Our next meeting will be much longer and, for most of you, a lot more painful. If you decide to stay in the business when this is over, it will be because you were torn apart and built back up from scratch. You know who to reach to find the next meeting place. We’ll meet on Sunday, that’s three days from now. Until then, tread softly.”
Will waited for the group to stand, but the girl, Hawthorne, spoke up. “Can you tell us why you quit?”
Will looked at her visor. “Normally it takes a bit longer before someone gets up the courage to ask that, but my policy has always been to answer once it was.” The group sat back down and Will pulled off his sunglasses, revealing his eyes, one blue one green. “I quit because I saw the worst in people and I saw the best. I quit because I couldn’t believe in it anymore. I quit because I lost someone dear to me. All of these are true, but the answer is simpler. I quit because I was too scared to go on. I quit because I reached an edge, and I couldn’t jump, so I walked away.”
Will turned away and walked out of the building. As he let the door close behind him, he heard a hollow voice behind him. “Tread softly, Mr. Writer.”