If something bad is happening right in front of you and you know that you could do something to help, should you? It’s easy to say yes, but when you’re in the heat of the moment, when you have to put actions to those words, it’s another thing entirely.
I had gotten off the bus at my usual stop and started walking the rest of the way home. It wasn’t far, and with a light jacket it felt rather comfortable outside. The Sun had sunk low and lit up the underside of the few clouds that drifted across the sky. My route home took me past a little gas station, and on a whim, I decided to pop in and get a bottle of soda.
The man running the store was on the older side, slightly portly, and with greying hair. He offered a friendly smile as I walked in, and I returned the pleasantry as I headed for the coolers in the back. It was a small store that hadn’t been renovated in a long time. The old linoleum tiles and buzzing fluorescent lights attested to that.
When I got back to the counter, the clerk put down the magazine he’d been leafing through to ring up my order. I pulled out the change in my pocket, counting it in my palm before laying it on the counter. It came up a little short, so I reached for my wallet. Just as my hand reached by back pocket, the door to the store flew open and two men in dark clothing rushed in.
I jumped at the sudden noise, but then I realized I was staring down the barrel of a gun. They started shouting something, but I froze like a deer in headlights. “I said get down!” Thug 1’s command snapped me back to reality and I complied. I slid my hands up and got down to one knee and then the other. I glanced to Thug 2, who was screaming at the man behind the counter, waving a gun like an idiot. “Hurry up!” Thug 1 shouted at Thug 2. “I am, just watch that fucker,” Thug 2 snapped back.
Thug 2 was still screaming at the clerk, who wasn’t apparently moving fast enough. To drive this point home, he opened his left fist and a small tongue of flame sprung to life. A metahuman. I felt my blood run cold. Armed gunmen were bad enough; they could kill you with the pull of a trigger, but metahumans could take out city blocks or worse if you were unfortunate. This guy looked like some low-level pyro and he was showing it off with impunity. What an idiot. It was bad enough they were stupid enough to rob a store that probably didn’t have but a few dollars in the register, but to use your powers openly?
When my heart finally started beating again, I started looking for a way out. “Man, you guys are idiots,” I said under my breath. Thug 1 didn’t seem to like my peanut gallery commentary. He readjusted his grip on the gun and shoved it closer to my face. “Shut the hell up! And I said get down!” He yelled. “I am, I am,” I replied calmly. My heart was beginning to race and I swallowed hard. “You guys are just making a huge mistake.” Oh god, why can’t I shut up? I thought to myself. “Keep him quiet!” Thug 2 yelled, clearly getting more agitated. “I’m tryin’ he ain’t listening!” Thug 1 snapped back. The register was almost empty by now, it was almost over. “Then shoot him!” Thug 2 deadpanned.
My heart rate skyrocketed; I did not feel like getting shot. “I really wouldn’t do that. I mean you guys are just gonna face robbery charges, no point in adding homicide to that, right?” I rambled off, not wanting to escalate the situation, despite feeling I was doing just that. “Shut the fuck up!” Thug 1 hissed. “I’m sorry, I’m just nervous, and I talk when I get nervous, ya know, it’s a…” Thug 1 pushed me back, aiming the gun menacingly. “Last chance!” I tried to smile as non-threateningly as I could. “Come on, you don’t want to shoot me. You don’t see like that kind of guy,” My hands were still raised, trying to seem as little of a threat as I could. He seemed to be hesitant to do anything. The opening of death dipped down slightly, and I could feel a sigh of relief building. Its arrival would be slightly delayed, however.
It came without any warning or build up, just a flash of the bluest blue. It had been weeks since I last had one. In the moment I was blinded the flash seemed to communicate something. It was like in the movies or TV shows where information is just downloaded into the brain, except this was too fast for anyone to make sense of it. Kind of like a reflex, but also like ESP, just… not exactly.
“Shit! He’s a meta, let’s go!” I opened my eyes when I heard Thug 1. He had already turned and moved past his partner in crime, who was still aiming his gun at me. With a bit of a shocked expression, he turned to follow his friend before he got too far. I glanced over to make sure the Clerk was alright, and he seemed fine, but he was staring at me with a look of shock on his face not too different than the crook. I glanced down at my hand and saw a fading glow reflecting off the grimy tiles of the store floor. My left hand was clenched around something small and hard. I already knew what it was, but I still uncurled my fingers to look at the bullet sitting in my palm.
That sigh I had pent up finally came out, but it wasn’t just relief any more. It was tinged with some more negative cousin of disappointment. “Call the police,” I said to the Clerk. That seemed to snap him out of his uncomfortable gaze that had been locked on me since the crooks fled. He nodded and looked around for his phone. Standing up, my own phone was fished from my pocket. I unlocked it and just stared at the home screen. The bullet pulled my attention back like a magnet. Not a very large round, but I’d be dead if I were a normal.
If I were normal.
Regardless, it happened and I wasn’t dead. I tucked the bullet in my pants pocket, which put it out of mind for the time being. Now came the part I dreaded. My thumb hit the contacts app and then a name after scrolling down a bit. The phone rang a few times before connecting. “Hey, Nate, what’s up?” came the cheerful voice over the phone. “Hey, James. I’m fine, but I was in a… in an incident,” I replied.
“Incident? What kind? When?” James asked quickly. The cheeriness was gone, replaced with laser focus and concern. “I’m at the gas station on the corner of Blue Island and Western, there was an armed robbery. The Clerk is calling the Police right now.”
“Oh my God, are you alright?” Asked James. I heard him stand up and start moving.
“Yeah, I’m fine, no one got hurt,” I replied. I heard him open a door and then stop. Oh no, this was it, I could tell.
“Did you use your powers?” There it was.
“Yeah,” I replied weakly.
“Damn it, Nate!” He groaned. A spark of anger flared up, burned brightly, and then died out just as fast but not before I muttered, “I wasn’t looking for trouble. It was self defense.”
“Look, I’m sorry, I’m just a bit on edge,” I said quickly. Fortunately, James didn’t seem too upset at my outburst.
“I know, but this is a big deal. I’m on my way. Stay there and cooperate with the police. Blue Island and Western, that’s near where you live, right?”
I almost nodded but caught myself. “Yes,” I answered.
“Alright, I’ll be there soon,” James replied. I hung up and settled down to wait.
Flashing lights rolled onto the scene before too long had passed and the cops got to work immediately. They started talking to the Clerk first, asking him the usual questions. Soon I would have to spill the beans and tell them I was a meta and go through that process. Again. Most people were fine– or at least didn’t panic– with metas, but if you were unlucky, you’d meet someone who thought like CADMUS used to back in the day; thinking that metahuman was synonymous with monster.
“Name?” I put on a friendly face and glanced up at the cop there to take my statement. I quickly cleared my throat and stood up straight from leaning against the store’s wall, “Nathaniel Peterson.” He scribbled that down and I knew I had to tell him, but I just couldn’t. It was like a lump caught in my throat.
“Alright, Mr. Peterson, tell me what happened,” He said, looking up at me. I sighed and felt my shoulders fall a little. “I’m a metahuman,” I muttered, barely audible. The cop seemed unphased by the revelation, merely asking, “Registration number?” I was a bit surprised how laid-back he seemed, but I wasn’t going to question the molehill my mountain became. “Seven two four five seven,” I answered.
“Have you contacted your liaison?” He asked, pen hovering over his notepad.
“Yeah, he’s on his way here.” The cop nodded and followed up by asking me to continue my version of events. There wasn’t much more for me to add. He mentioned shots fired, and I told him that, yeah, the Clerk was right. I pulled the bullet out of my pocket and offered it for the cop to take.
“Jesus, kid! Looks like this thing hit solid steel. And it…?” I nodded and found my eyes attracted to the ground. Advertising that I was (sometimes) bullet proof wasn’t something I liked to do. It didn’t typically invite the good kind of attention. “Alright, well, I’ll be passing the report on to your liaison. Have a good day.”
The cop walked away with my bullet, probably for evidence or something, and I spotted a new car pull into the gas station. That had to be James. The door opened and sure enough, James’s lanky frame stepped out. One of the boys in blue started towards him. James greeted him, saying something as he pulled his badge from his suit jacket pocket. With the Argus badge granting him access, James strolled over as soon as he locked on to me standing on the sidelines.
“Took you long enough,” I said with a half-hearted smirk. James rolled his eyes and crossed his arms, “I wasn’t expecting to be making any visits. If you had given me a little heads-up…” I couldn’t help but smile a little.
“It wasn’t exactly planned,” I replied. James grinned and nodded. “I’ll get a copy of the report from the station once it’s filed.” That sounded fine to me. I wasn’t exactly dying to stick around. Pun intended? Maybe if I was having a better day it would have been.
“So, I’m free to go?” I asked, eagerness no doubt evident in my voice. James looked around a bit, avoiding my gaze, clearly uncomfortable. Oh no, I thought to myself. This is beginning to feel like the awkward calm before a storm of bad news.
“Can we walk and talk?”
James was quiet for the first bit as we walked away from the gas station towards my house. This wasn’t like him. Usually, it was a task to get James to shut up. It was probably part of what made him good at his job. I didn’t know exactly how many metas like me he was responsible for, but it was more than just one or two. He had to know how to talk to people, get them to tow the line, keep the status quo and all those nice sentiments. “Liaison” was a nice euphemism, but he was my handler, my glorified parole officer for the crime of being born different.
I couldn’t stand the silence anymore, “James, what’s going on?”
He hung his head and cleared his throat uncomfortably. “You know this makes the fifth time you’ve used your powers in public,” He said like he was giving a prognosis of a week to live.
“I know the rules, but it’s not liked I’ve ever used them on purpose…!” I said, leaping to my own defense, but James cut me off, “What about that time in the park?” I sighed, and my shoulders fell a bit.
“Okay. One time. One time, but that was it. I mean, it’s not like I tried to use them this time! They pointed a gun at me and they just ‘turned on’! That makes it a justified use, right?”
Despite whatever I said, I doubted it would prevent what was coming. “Yes, it does, but if you can’t control them, it’s still grounds for the same thing,” James said, holding something up in his hand. It looked like wrist-watch or a fitness bracelet.
“A power dampener?” I asked with evident disdain.
James nodded, “It’s not mandatory, yet. You can remove it in private, but if you wear it, it will go a long way in making you seem cooperative.” A power dampener was not something I was keen on having. I’d heard lots of bad things about them from causing migraines to messing with cellphones and other personal electronics. But what was the alternative? I couldn’t see any. The truth was I couldn’t control my powers; they reared their unwanted head whenever they felt like.
I reached for the dampener, but James pulled it back at the last second. “There is another option: You could become sanctioned.” Not this again. I stepped back and threw my hands up. “I already told you, I don’t want to be sanctioned. I don’t want to be a hero. I’m fine living a normal life,” I shot back. James rolled his eyes and adjusted his feet.
“You know you could make a difference. As far as powers go, you outclass all my other charges.”
“I don’t care, James. It just isn’t something I want.” I couldn’t make him understand, no matter what I said. Maybe he did understand, I don’t know, but that didn’t stop him. He wanted me to be a hero so he would get a promotion: he’d go from liaising with ten or twelve metas to just me. He’d get his name out there and climb whatever career ladder Argus had along with whatever else came with it. I couldn’t blame him, but I couldn’t be a hero. I wasn’t cut out for it.
“Give me the dampener,” I said with more venom than I meant to. James sighed, but relented, placing the device in my hand. “Just think about it, okay?” I didn’t say anything as he turned to walk back to his car, leaving me alone on the sidewalk.