Monday, February 9, 2015

The Tarnished Age: Unsafe at Any Speed

From the Tarnished Age concept developed by Brennan Thompson...

He was looking at his costume. It was now several months since he’d run away from home. Such was the state of Lero Lawler’s mind that he found no great pleasure from the thought of running away from anything. He wanted to leave his whole life behind, and yet there was the costume. It was the only clothing he had. Despite the usual ideas of glamour associated with superhero costumes, his was not looking its best, both a combination of the fact that he’d been wearing it nonstop for so long and because he was terrible at the special ability that had given him cause to wear it.

It was torn around the knees, for one thing. Everyone expects that a speedster will simply know exactly what to do, that they will somehow have the instincts. For Lero at least, that just wasn’t the case. He thought bitterly how it was common for people to acknowledge the difficulties of learning to fly, but those same people wouldn’t give him an inch, and “those people” were his own family, and those of the whole speedster community. And everyone else.

A speedster does more than run really fast. Being a speedster is more than simply picking a direction and avoiding obstacles. Given enough practice, a speedster can vibrate past even those, but beginners are expected to learn the art of dodging. It also helps in a fight. Yet Lero had far more basic problems than that. He had a mortal struggle with the idea of momentum itself. He didn’t know how to stop. Every time he did, he left the speedster equivalent of skid marks, and that’s to say he left large stretches of land, or whatever surface he happened to be on, imprinted with tangible evidence that he’d covered that territory.

Now, speedsters have a certain amount of physical tenacity. Beyond the metabolism that accelerates their caloric intake and regulated body type, which also gives them incredible resilience, most surfaces touched while in the act of running aren’t affected by them, the rapidity of movement canceling out their presence. Except when drag is introduced. And drag is introduced with panic, uncertainty. Like any machine, all the parts work in concert when everything works the way it’s supposed to. When the machine doesn’t work, that’s when you notice just how intricate the whole thing is.

All of which is to say, Lero was a speedster who did not function properly. It wasn’t psychological, so far as he was aware anyway, pressure to live up to the family legacy. When you’re born with an ability, that means it comes naturally to you. Lero was born as a speedster. And yet, no amount of training or encouragement or experience ever seemed to change the fact that he just wasn’t any good. It began to occur to him that even gifts you’re born with don’t always mean that you’re meant to depend on them. For a speedster born into a family of speedsters, this would be a hard thing to explain.

That’s why he ran away. It was just easier.

That is, it would have been if he had had some kind of backup plan. He’d spent the preceding months scraping by, which was not so unusual in the grand scope of things. The Great Depression, despite the best efforts of President Roosevelt, still affected most of the country. The rest of the world was busy dealing with the emerging crisis instigated by Nazis and imperial Japanese interests. Lero looked at his ragged costume and saw a reflection of just how screwed up everything really was. But he still wanted to figure out how to fit in so that it wasn’t so depressing.

That was how he met Oscar Ovila, who called himself Outcast in the same way most people knew Lero as Mach. He found Oscar in an alley, sitting on a mountain of trash bags that were not filled with trash at all but treasures, and not in the sense that he’d liberally renamed someone else’s trash. When they had known each other a few days, Oscar showed Lero the contents of just one bag. It was art. Lero had no idea how he’d gotten it, because he recognized the work of Picasso, just as anyone would have. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d expect to find in an alleyway. The thing was, Lero recognized an opportunity. Oscar mentioned that there were more, or more accurately had once been more, until a thief had stolen the rest of them. What Oscar didn’t know was that it was Lero who had taken them. This was well before he’d met Oscar himself. When you stumble across priceless works of art and they’re not hanging in a museum or some rich person’s home, chances are they’re more than just misplaced. He’d put them someplace secure.

He couldn’t just tell Oscar that, however. He didn’t know how Oscar had ended up with the art in the first place, and he didn’t know how much he could trust him. These were at least reason enough to help Oscar in his own efforts to retrieve his ambiguous treasure, though. Beyond everything else, Lero desperately wanted someone who understood him, and Oscar had proven as likely a candidate as anyone.

Oscar’s first instinct was to contact members of the superhero community. This proved difficult, as he was not known as Outcast for just any reason. For this reason, Lero volunteered the names of certain speedsters he knew, not from his family, but certainly those they would know well. The first was Blue Streak, who happened to be visiting Centennial City, where he was working on a case with the Allied Avenger, tracking down a Nazi spy.

“If you ask me, it’s a waste of my time,” the speedster told them. “Hitler doesn’t seem so bad. That’s what a lot of us are saying. Those who oppose him are simply scared of the future. Just between us, I think they’re scared of all of us. Rumor has it that he has a speedster of his own.”

“Who else are you including in this estimation?” Lero found himself asking. He was horrified.

“You know, guys like Dash, Brisk, Fleet,” Blue Streak continued. “I’m pretty sure you can include Rapid in that number. But then some of us think he’s one of the German speedsters as it is. You can’t tell under that mask of his. And he never speaks.”

“You never know,” Oscar said.

“The Allied Avenger is an idiot,” Blue Streak said. “He works alone, if you can believe it. British fool. Takes frequent breaks for tea.”

Lero saw that this particular avenue was a waste of time, and even as an imperfect speedster he shared that trait; that much he could sympathize with Blue Streak. He’d never liked him anyway, not even when he overheard him speaking ill about his parents, Pronto and Presto. Perhaps that was the reason why Lero decided to talk with someone from the family next. Oscar had no objections, even though by Lero’s own account his contacts were proving fruitless.

It was his younger sister Hairtrigger that Lero turned to, as always. She was the only one who seemed to understand him. “They’re all worried about you,” she said.

“That’s what they’d say,” Lero replied. “I’m sure Breakneck has been the most vocal, but then she’s always been. How’s Mom taking it?”

“Not well,” Hairtrigger said. “You’re hurting all of us.”

“I wonder how much Hypersonic has noticed,” Lero said. “Or Supersonic.”

“You’ve got an inferiority complex,” Hairtrigger suggested.

“Maybe,” Lero said. “Listen, please tell me the family doesn’t think Hitler is anything but an evil bastard.”

“You should know that already,” Hairtrigger said. “Of course we know what he is. If we could do it without becoming enemies of our own country, we’d join the fight against him today.”

“Suppose I told you that there are already some of us that have done that,” Lero said. “I’m helping a friend track down stolen Nazi loot. Which was itself stolen. Would you know anything about that?”

“Not me,” Hairtrigger said. “Maybe Dad, or one of your imposing brothers. Listen, please come home.”

“I can’t do that right now,” Lero said. If he could, he would have run away right there and then, disappeared, insofar as one speedster can do so against another. “You know I love you. Please don’t tell them you saw me.”

He rejoined Oscar elsewhere, in a diner, where his friend was enjoying a cup of tea.

“It seemed appropriate,” Oscar said. “Was it hard, seeing your sister like that? At any rate, we’re getting nowhere. I’d ask if that was tough for a speedster, but I know you better than that.”

“Just like I could ask if you had any useful contacts we could exploit,” Lero said. “But that would be equally pointless. I guess I’d say that seeing her was hard in the sense that it only makes it harder.”

“Now you know,” Oscar said. “The people you know can always make things worse. But they can also make it better. You just never know.”

“What made you think I could help make things better for you?”

“They say the devil you know is better than the one you don’t,” Oscar said. “Let’s just say that I differ on a lot of philosophical points. You can’t disappoint me until you do. Everyone I knew already has.”

“I’m sorry,” Lero said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Oscar said. “If there was anything you could do about that, I wouldn’t be talking to you. Better to try and reclaim my treasure. That’s all I care about.”

Centennial City can be a lot like Oscar’s definition of familiarity. It can be your biggest friend, or your worst enemy. For that reason, they determined that it wouldn’t be necessary to look anywhere else. Lero suggested that Blue Streak might still be useful, given that he and the Allied Avenger were admittedly tracking a Nazi spy. He was finding it increasingly difficult to continue lying to Oscar, but their relationship was built on mutual need, something the visit with his sister had only confirmed. Even if he didn’t share the exact sentiments, Lero found that Oscar’s ideas were helping him process his complicated feelings toward his family.

The spy went by the name Doctor Teutonic. He had come to America on the pretense of sharing secrets of the international superhero community. There were those who had embraced his arrival, and those who remained skeptical. Lero remembered how his parents scoffed at the idea of welcoming a German of any stripe into the city, until he himself reminded them of Einstein, who surely could not be rejected on such a basis. Doctor Teutonic was no Einstein, but Lero found it difficult to reject him on the basis of his nationality. The man he now knew as a spy was more than capable of providing reasons all on his own.

“Americans amuse me,” the German said. “You boast of yourselves as one of the greatest countries in the world, and yet the biggest impact you’ve had lately is to ruin the fortunes of countless countries, and you prefer to isolate yourself from state affairs.”

Lero and Oscar stood there, astonished at Doctor Teutonic’s words, but Blue Streak appeared unfazed. They had gathered at one of Centennial City’s main shipping wharfs, and were attempting to speak casually together. It didn’t take Lero long to decide this was another waste of his time. He waited for the earliest opportunity, and quickly begged himself off. In his mind, Lero was traveling back to the period just after leaving his family behind for the first time, before Oscar, when he met the orphan known as Banks.

Here was a girl, younger than Lero, perhaps thirteen, who had clearly been living on the streets most of her life, who had been abandoned but somehow made the most of it. It was Banks who first told Lero about Oscar, about the art. She was a scrapper, who had every reason to be as cynical about her fortunes as Doctor Teutonic was about the whole country, and yet Banks exhibited a force of will that took Lero aback from the moment he met her.

“Don’t let appearances fool you,” she said. “And don’t trust the Outcast. He’s not what he seems, and he’ll betray you in a heartbeat.”

Should Lero be worrying now? Blue Streak appeared to be in Doctor Teutonic’s back pocket, but might Oscar also be leaning in that direction? How else had he gotten his hands on the art in the first place?

When Lero ambled back to the wharf, he knew immediately that it had been a mistake to leave. Oscar was staring at him, and Blue Streak looked smug. “I’ve just been told something very troubling, Lero,” Oscar said. “If I were to ask my good friend Nadir about my art, what do you suppose he’d tell me?”

Lero knew that Nadir was part of Oscar’s tenuous network, though someone they hadn’t visited because he wasn’t always reliable to look after his own best interests. Lero knew Nadir because it was Nadir who’d told Banks about the art, and Nadir knew about it because he was the one who first suggested that it shouldn’t be in Oscar’s possession, much less in the hands of Nazis.

“Never mind about that, though,” Oscar continued. “I’ve also been informed of something that might interest you a little more personally. Your mother is experiencing a problem with containment. Your sister didn’t tell you that, did she?”

Containment for speedsters meant their body’s ability to regulate itself. If what Oscar was telling him was true, this was very bad news. It was completely different from Lero’s own problems. It was a fatal diagnosis. His mom had very little time left to live.

“Who told you this?” he demanded.

“Don’t trust the messenger?” Blue Streak sneered. Doctor Teutonic remained at a discreet distance, while Oscar stood nearby, looking abashed. “What’s the matter, you didn’t know? Pronto was always good, but she was never that good. Teutonic says he could help her. His people have been conducting experiments, with the goal of eventually eliminating such degenerative diseases from our kind. Isn’t that good news? Puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it?”

Not as far as Lero was concerned. Insensate to the known consequences, he dashed off at his fullest speed, leaving the whole party behind. He traveled loops around the city, ignoring the damage he caused along the way, not even worrying about how or when he was going to stop. He suddenly wondered if he was ever going to. His mind was racing. There was a very good reason for Teutonic to care so much about his mom’s condition. The end result, the end of her life, would coincide with a perfect burst of speed, uncontrolled, a breach of space and time itself. He must already know where that would lead. That had been the real reason for the German’s activities. Lero scoured the archives of the local paper, whipping through page upon page and creating a maelstrom around him, until he found the article he was looking for, something about the Manhattan Project and Einstein’s visit to Centennial City a year earlier.

Lero had no idea what this Manhattan Project was, and he suspected that Teutonic didn’t either, but that the real purpose of his visit was to find out, and steal its secrets. He’d merely used Blue Streak, and by extension Oscar, to advance this goal. And he would use Lero’s mom to complete it. He must have already determined that the end of her life would give him exactly this opportunity. Was there some vital clue in the papers? Lero couldn’t bring himself to look. He had already wasted enough time. He now headed back in the direction of home.

The more Lero thought of his mom, the more he blamed himself for her condition. His body was aching all over, and yet he ignored it. He kept calling himself names. He called himself selfish and stupid, immature, impulsive. He was running faster than he had ever gone. He hadn’t stopped since the wharf.

He ran around the family’s home several times. Teutonic was already there. The air blazed with an energy Lero knew was connected to the end of his mother’s life. She was causing a breach in reality, and he wondered if his presence, all the running he himself was doing, only intensified the effect. Yet he couldn’t stop. He didn’t trust himself. He sped into the house, and saw everything in chaos. There were bodies all over the place. His dad, and his brothers and sisters, they appeared to be alive, but unconscious, whether from something Teutonic had done or from the concussive waves emanating from Pronto, who was phasing in and out of the living room. The German spy was clutching Oscar’s art. Somehow he’d found it. Perhaps the art had always been the key, an anchor to the past.

Whatever the Manhattan Project was, there was no way Lero could allow Teutonic to interfere with it. What stopped him now from acting was a different kind of agony, extreme remorse at having been away while his mom’s life ebbed away from her. He asked himself if he’d known before leaving, if there had been some sign.

There was only one thing he could do now. He raced off with the bodies of his family, and cleared the nearby homes as well. When he stopped, when he finally came to a halt, the result would be catastrophic. He had to make sure the area was clear.

He picked up speed. He pushed himself past all levels of endurance. There was a sonic boom that rattled the whole earth, but he doubted that Teutonic noticed. There were so many questions he wanted to ask the German. When this was over, he wondered what would happen next.

The effort of stopping had always been something Lero feared. He knew how badly he handled it under the best of circumstances, when he only traveled short distances, for only seconds at a time. He’d been running for nearly an hour, in perpetual motion in one fashion or another since it first occurred to him the true scope of the crisis.

He could feel his mom’s life radiating, leaking away from her. He drew strength from this. He was more afraid of losing her than what would happen when he stopped.

And so, for the first time in his life, Lero Lawler, who had done everything in his power to separate himself from the identity of Mach, found himself in control of his speed. In an instant, he was standing in front of his mom, no longer moving so much as a muscle. Only a tear broke his sudden inertia.

But there were consequences. The whirlpool he’d created, amplified by his mother’s condition, created another boom. The grace period Lero experienced for the first time, a heartbeat between the speedster’s actions and their effect on the world around them, ended. The house exploded around them.

Lero had saved the art, but he’d left Teutonic behind. The German spy’s atoms scattered in an instant.

He wasn’t sure what to think of that. He couldn’t begin to say why he hadn’t spirited Teutonic away as well, like he had so many others. In the immediate moment, Lero wasn’t thinking of Teutonic at all, but rather of his mom, whose body also vanished, but for different reasons entirely. Like so many other speedsters before her, Pronto was now part of the greater force that gave all of them their abilities.

Lero never ran again.

He walked up behind Oscar, who was back in one of Centennial City’s many alleyways. “Did you know?”

Oscar didn’t react at first. “I could ask you the same question. You never stopped to wonder if I might have had a reason to steal that art, did you? But we both know you knew. You were the one who took it all away from me. You never trusted me for a moment.”

“Should I have?”

“I guess we’ll never know.” Oscar looked away. He had a forlorn expression on his face. “She’s dead, isn’t she? We all felt it. Blue Streak left right away. Listen, I’m sorry, kid. But it’s not the end of the world. You’ll see.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Not as easy as you’d think,” Oscar said. He started to shuffle off, but then turned around. “We’ll figure this out. Let’s get you something else to wear. Take this whole day off of you.”

Lero hesitated, but only for a moment. It felt like an eternity to him. Then he went to join his friend.

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