The Academy by T.L. Bodine
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Synopsis: Think the economy is bad? Unemployment? Here, a superhero loses privileges when replaced by superior powers.
About the Author: T.L. Bodine was born in 1986 in Durango, CO, and spent the rest of her childhood traveling with her blue-collar family and fostering a lifelong love affair with language. Ms. Bodine received her BA in English at New Mexico State University in 2007 and studied Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona before returning to New Mexico, where she currently resides. She lives with her boyfriend, two cats, a toothless chihuahua, and runs a small-scale rat rescue from her apartment. The rats eat better than anyone else in the house.
In this superhero fiction, superheros will be let go to be replaced by alternative forces.
The water flows into the tub, churning the soap into a seething, sudsy cloud. I peel my clothes off, and add them to the pile in the tub, press them down with my hand so they stay submerged. The soap-bubbles consume them, and I shut off the tap and climb into the tub and feel wet cotton squish up between my toes, slick with soap. I step in place, stomp, meditatively trying to recreate the agitation cycle of a washing machine. I try to imagine myself stomping grapes. I try to imagine giving up an offering to Bacchus, for love and free-flowing wine. It doesn’t work.
When I looked it up on the internet, I was assured this process would be enjoyable. Green. Economical. Rewarding, even. But now, standing calf-deep in steaming suds, I can tell you honestly: this isn’t enjoyable. This is shit.
Things weren’t like this, at first.
I was a late bloomer. Most people, if they’re going to be Supers, figure it out by puberty: you get breasts and menstruation and super-powers, like a package deal. Some even show aptitude as young children. Not me; I was eighteen when the change came over me.
The thing about super powers is they’re instant. Unlike other changes in your life — growing up, learning skills, falling in love — the powers really do come from nowhere, like turning on a light switch. There’s darkness, then there’s light, and once your eyes adjust you can see everything. I fell asleep one night as nobody special, the same as I’d done every night in my not-very-special life. While I slept, I had the strangest dream. In it, I was a cat — a powerful jungle cat, all muscle and stealth and power — and I prowled through a drab gray cityscape, feeling as though I was the queen of everything. When I awoke, it was dark, but I could see my room in perfect detail. I could smell the reek of sex that clung to my roommate’s unwashed sheets. I smelled the stale weed from my suitemate’s dorm. I could hear the dull crunch of asphalt under tires, the squeaking of brakes, the thudding of bass in car radios. I crept out of bed, curious but unafraid, and my feet were soundless on the linoleum.
I was still a human — two hands, ten toes, bare flesh hidden under flannel pajamas — but I was something else, too. Something more. I padded silently from my room out onto the balcony, and cleared it with an easy leap, landing in the courtyard below crouched on all fours. My body wanted to run, so I let it, and for a long time that night all I did was scale buildings and jump across rooftops. I’ll always remember that night. I never had another like it.
You’ve only got two choices, once the powers appear: train for work at the Academy…or hide and hope to god they never find you. The latter option doesn’t really work out. The Academy has a special force that keep tabs on Super activity all over the world; they catch a whiff of Power and they’ll be on you in a second. If, somehow, you manage not to get caught, the powers themselves will slowly consume you. Unless they’re trained properly, focused and directed, the powers will eat away at your mind and body and soon enough you’ll go insane. It’s for your own good, the controls they put in place. For your good, and the safety of everyone. That’s what the Academy is about – the safety of everyone.
So when the agents came for me, from the Academy, I went with them.
I stare down into the tub. My clothes float around my feet like flaccid eels. The bubbles are gone, and the water is tepid and gray. I open the drain with my toes, balancing for a moment on one foot on slippery soap-lubricated porcelain. The superior balance is good for something, I think.
Now, if only the powers enabled me to find some goddamn quarters.
I turn the tap again, refilling the tub. First rinse cycle. More stomping. The clothes bleed gray-blue into the water and the chemicals in the soap sting the soles of my feet.
The old apartment was better. It had a washing machine of its own, tucked into the hall closet, and a garbage disposal, and a gate that locked at night. Not that I ever feared for my safety; lightning-fast reflexes and supreme night vision kind of negate the threat of petty criminals in the night. I miss the washing machine, though. Here I have to turn out my pockets for quarters and stand under the flickering sick-yellow fluorescent lights in the laundry room, smelling stale nicotine and discarded diapers.
Now, in the bathroom, I kind of miss the laundromat.
“We are gifted with the duty to protect mankind. We are granted the sacred birthright to work in service of the weak. Our humility is our strength.”
They taught us a lot of things at the Academy. How to focus and refine our power. How to utilize technology to complement our abilities. And how to submit to the authority of the weak, whose protection was our ultimate purpose.
We finished our Recitation of Principle — a superhero pledge of allegiance, essentially — and sat down. The classroom looked the same as any other: desks, arranged in rows facing a blackboard. On the blackboard the professor had drawn a very crude rendition of an enemy combatant. It had vacant circles for eyes and a crooked slash for a mouth.
“Ok. This is the enemy.” When they taught lessons, they were always vague on who or what the enemy would be. Specifics didn’t matter. The end result would always be the same. “As you all know, there are multiple ways to reach a single outcome — namely, here, to kill.”
The professor was short and fat, with almost no hair on his head but an unusual quantity on his knuckles. We didn’t know what power, if any, he had. Rumor was he was a Normal. But there’s no way to tell by looking — not unless you’ve got the Sense, that enables you to track Super energy, and even then it only works when powers are actually being used.
“Physical attack,” he continued, his beady eyes scanning over all of us to make sure we were paying attention. “Psychic. Molecular. Chemical. Stealth. Radiation. I want you to tell me how you plan to kill this individual. Five page essay, single spaced, explaining the benefits and methodology of your choice. On my desk Friday.”
We uttered a collective groan.
“Yes, Jade Falcon?”
Jade Falcon — that was her official name, but we mostly still called her Rebecca — had her hand up in the air. It spent a lot of time there. Nobody really liked her; not because she was a know-it-all — which she was — but because we sensed that the faculty tended to dislike her. We avoided her the way herd animals reject their sickly members, for fear of predators. “I was just wondering,” she said, her voice trembling a little — all eyes were on her, suddenly, and the room was more tense than it should have been. “For — for the assignment. Do we have to kill the enemy?” She blushed bright red.
“Why wouldn’t you want to kill the enemy?” The professor’s voice was low and cold and sounded like poison.
I felt bad for Jade Falcon, but of course I said nothing. No one did.
“I just — I didn’t mean — ” she was flustered. There were embarrassed tears in her eyes. “For the assignment. We can’t stun, or in-incapacitate?”
It seemed unfair that a bald, short, fat man who was almost certainly a Normal should have so much power. But that’s life. “No, Ms. Falcon.” His voice was thick with irony. “Assume that if you fail to kill the enemy, that he will not hesitate to kill you instead.” His words were sensible — pragmatic — but his eyes burned with loathing.
She said nothing further and we worked the rest of the day in uneasy silence.
I lift up a shirt and examine it. It smells like a spring breeze, but there’s a white film clinging to the pores of the fabric where the soap settled in. I poke at it, with a fingernail, and it smudges, white-gray and slimy. I sigh and drop the shirt back into the pile, carefully stamping it down with the other laundry, squeezing as much water out as I can. I suppose I have to do another rinse.
I have superhuman stamina, but even I’m starting to get tired. Maybe it’s just despair masquerading as fatigue.
After graduation — an event that happened when the Academy felt you were ready, regardless of age or time spent in the program — we were assigned to our jobs.
Mostly they used us in wars. Sometimes we fought crime — the big stuff, the things law enforcement can’t take due to danger or difficulty. Some of us aided in disasters. We worked alongside the CIA and the Black Ops and the National Guard and we were compensated well enough. Not that anybody was really working for the money. At the time, knowing you were a superhero was compensation enough.
Funny how things change.
Some of us — the favorites, the best and the brightest — went on to join the Special Hero Services. They’re the people who control the rest of us, the Super Police as it were. If a hero decides to go rogue, or a child’s talents get out of hand, or a hero needs disciplinary action, they’re the ones who do it. After all, you have to fight Supers with other Supers.
There aren’t any Super Villains, not really. Only those allied with the Academy, and those on the outside. The ones on the outside don’t tend to live very long.
I worked for the Academy for a long time. I fought a lot of people: civilian criminals, enemy soldiers, foreign Supers. I fell in love with a scientist. His name was James and he was so smart I thought he was a Super when I met him. We were at a party. The Human Tank threw it at his place, on some pretense or another, I don’t remember the details – we partied so often, survival being excuse enough to celebrate – and he always threw the best parties. Anti-Gravity Man was showboating, doing keg stands, and we were all drunk enough to humor him even though it wasn’t really that impressive.
James leaned against the wall, sipping at his drink and looking awkward and vulnerable. I asked him to hold my drink while I danced, and when I came back there was sweat in the small of my back and my body was tingling all over and James said something – I don’t remember what, now, but at the time it had been the smartest, funniest thing I’d heard all night, maybe in my life. He told me later he’d spent all the while I was dancing trying to come up with a good line.
Somehow we got to talking, and I leaned against the wall beside him and soaked in his intelligence and his vulnerability and then he kissed me and I kissed him back and we were a tangle of bodies and hands and by the time I figured out he was a Normal it didn’t matter anymore.
We got married six months later. It didn’t work out.
After we made love he would lay on his back with a stony look on his face, sweat pooling on his brow and his chest, and I would curl up beside him and feel restless and unsatisfied and neither of us would speak. It wasn’t just about the sex. It was about the insurmountable distance between us, the knowledge we both had that neither of us could put into words. He felt inferior. I worried constantly about hurting him. We both held back, and we both knew it but were too scared not to.
I tried to get pregnant, for awhile. I thought it might help. But the seed would never take, and whether that was my fault or his, it drove the last wedge between us. Sometimes I still think about the baby we could have had, but I try not to. It’s too confusing. Too painful.
One day, years after the divorce, James pulled me aside and asked, in hushed tones, if I wanted to see something amazing. It wasn’t the sort of question I could say no to, so I followed him down the hall into one of the dozen rooms they use for experiments and whatever else the scientist types do. Inside, there was a machine. It was humanoid, but just barely; it was all glinting steel and right angles and ball joints, like an overgrown action figure. “What is this?” I asked him.
James spoke with reverence and tenderness and awe, and standing beside him I could hardly remember how I’d ever loved him. “A robotic hero simulator,” he said, and reached out a hand to touch it, to stroke its steel boxy biceps. The robot stayed inert and vaguely menacing in its silence. “Available in a whole array of powers — technologically identical to any Super we want!” He turned to me, and he smiled. “Just think. War between robots alone. No more casualties — Normal or Super.”
His eyes shone with pride.
If he truly believed in it, I’ll never know. But I saw the machine for what it was — the beginning of the end.
The clothes are clean enough. They’re not so slimy to the touch now, anyway, and I’m tired of looking at them. I wring them out, one at a time, and marvel at how much water a single pair of blue jeans can hold and how exhausting it is to squeeze it all out. I hang each item on the clothes line I strung up in the bathtub, and watch the slow rain of water drip down from the seams and edges into the tub.
The robots replaced the heroes.
The robots stood like titans, avatars of the geeks that stood on the sidelines and played their war games. Just like that, within a lifetime we had gone from heroes to washed-up veterans, relics of a bygone era, cursed with bodies and powers and skills we could no longer use. We were like puzzle pieces that had been warped and cut and no longer fit where they once had.
They offered me a position in Special Services when they laid me off, but I declined. I just didn’t have the heart to spend my days hunting the last of a dying breed.
It didn’t take long before robots were doing that job, too.
They debriefed me. I knew it all already, but I listened because that’s what a soldier does. I would live my life as a civilian; I would never use my powers again, under threat of being hunted by the same task force I had refused to work for. They gave me some severance pay, and a monthly stipend — a retirement pension — and wished me the best of luck.
A career in professional crime-fighting didn’t prepare me for the real world. I tried to go back to school, but they wouldn’t take me — they seemed to think I could cheat. I tried to explain to them that, even if I could use my powers — which I couldn’t, not without unbearable consequences — that I wasn’t psychic or anything, that I really didn’t see how heightened senses and some enhanced physical ability could really give me an unfair advantage in the classroom. It didn’t help.
I got a job with a supermarket, on their midnight stocking crew. My boss was a thin weaselly man with a pencil mustache and big glasses. He spoke in a high-pitched whine, like a petulant jet engine, and when he talked to me he never looked directly at me but kept his eyes averted just a little as though he were watching a solar eclipse.
“I know you’re able to work faster,” he said, for the hundredth time. He had a clipboard in his hand and some form with little check boxes. “We all believe in developing the unique talents of our team members. That’s one of the key foundations of ShopMart’s competitive business model, that is, performing to the best of our abilities.” He gave me one of his long sideways glances, and nibbled at his pen. “Do you think you’re working to the best of your abilities? Hm?”
I tore off my green apron and dropped it on the floor and walked out.
Behind me, I heard him calling “You have to turn in your box cutter!” but I just kept walking.
There’s a lot of distrust in the world now, about Supers. We can’t use our powers anymore, but they don’t seem to remember that. We also protected them from evil for centuries, but they don’t seem to remember that either. One of these days the robots are going to be replaced by the next enhancement in technology, the next tool of the elite and nerdy. Then they’ll be the ones trying to find a day job. Except I guess they won’t care so much; they can just be powered down, go into hibernation, cease to exist.
**** THE END ****
Copyright T.L. Bodine 2012
Image Courtesy: Ebenezer