This morning on planet Earth, there are one thousand, six
hundred, and eighty-six enhanced, gifted, or otherwise superpowered
persons. Of these, one hundred and twenty-six are civilians
leading normal lives. Thirty-eight are kept in research facilities
funded by the Department of Defense, or foreign equivalents. Two hundred
and twenty-six are aquatic, confined to the oceans. Twenty-nine
are strictly localized—powerful trees and genii loci, the Great Sphinx,
and the Pyramid of Giza. Twenty-five are microscopic (including the
Infinitesimal Seven). Three are dogs; four are cats; one is a bird. Six are
made of gas. One is a mobile electrical effect, more of a weather pattern
than a person. Seventy-seven are alien visitors. Thirty-eight are missing.
Forty-one are off-continuity, permanent émigrés to Earth’s alternate
realities and branching time streams.
Six hundred and seventy-eight use their powers to fight crimes,
while 441 use their powers to commit them. Forty-four are currently
confined in Special Containment Facilities for enhanced criminals. Of
these last, it is interesting to note that an unusually high proportion
have IQs of 300 or more—eighteen to be exact. Including me.
I don’t know why it makes you evil. It’s just what you find at the
extreme right edge of the bell curve, the one you’d get if six billion
minds took an intelligence test and you looked at the dozen highest
scores. Picture yourself on that graph, sliding rightward and downslope
toward the very brightest, down that gradually gentler hill, out over the
top million, the top ten thousand—all far smarter than anyone most
people ever meet—out to the top thousand—and now things are getting
sparser—the last hundred, and it’s not a slope at all now, just a dot
every once in awhile. Go out to the last few grains of sand, the smartest
of the smartest of the smartest, times a thousand. It makes sense that
people would be a little odd out here. But you really have to wonder
why we all end up in jail.
Wake-up for me is at 6:30 a.m., half an hour earlier than the rest of the
inmates. There’s no furniture in my cell—I’m stretched out on the
painted green rectangle where I’m allowed to sleep. The way my skin is,
I hardly feel it anyway. The facility is rated for enhanced offenders, but
I’m the only one currently in residence. I am their showpiece, the pride
of the system, and a regular feature on the governor’s tours for visiting
dignitaries. They come and watch the performance, to see the tiger in
his cage, and I don’t disappoint.
The guard raps on the Plexiglas wall with his nightstick, so I get up
slowly and move to the red painted circle, where they run a scan, X ray,
radiation, and the rest. Then they let me put on clothes. I get eight minutes
while they check the route. You can do a lot of thinking in eight
minutes. I think about what I’ll do when I get out of here. I think about
If I had writing materials, I might write a guidebook, a source of
advice and inspiration for the next generation of masked criminals,
bent prodigies, and lonely geniuses, the ones who’ve been taught to feel
different, or the ones who knew it from the start. The ones who are
smart enough to do something about it. There are things they should
hear. Somebody has to tell them.
I’m not a criminal. I didn’t steal a car. I didn’t sell heroin, or steal an old
lady’s purse. I built a quantum fusion reactor in 1978, and an orbital
plasma gun in 1979, and a giant laser-eyed robot in 1984. I tried to con-
quer the world and almost succeeded, twelve times and counting.
When they take me away, it goes to the World Court—technically,
I’m a sovereign power. You’ve seen these trials—the Elemental, Rocking
Horse, Dr. Stonehenge. They put you in a glass and steel box. I’m still
dangerous, you know, even without my devices. People stare at you;
they can’t believe what you look like. They read out the long list of
charges, like a tribute. There isn’t really a trial—it’s not like you’re innocent.
But if you’re polite, then at the end they’ll let you say a few words.
They’ll ask questions. They’ll want to know why. “Why did
you . . . hypnotize the president?” “Why did you . . . take over Chemical
I’m the smartest man in the world. Once I wore a cape in public, and
fought battles against men who could fly, who had metal skin, who
could kill you with their eyes. I fought CoreFire to a standstill, and the
Super Squadron, and the Champions. Now I have to shuffle through a
cafeteria line with men who tried to pass bad checks. Now I have to
wonder if there will be chocolate milk in the dispenser. And whether
the smartest man in the world has done the smartest thing he could
with his life.
I stand by the door in a ring of armed men while my cell is checked by
three specialists with a caseful of instruments. From the tiers come
yells, shouts of encouragement, or catcalls. They want to see a show.
Then I march, past their eyes, followed by two men in partial armor
with bulky high-tech side arms. They have to wait until I pass before
their morning lineup.
There’s a lot of prison talk about my powers. Inmates believe my eyes
can emit laser beams, that my touch is electrical or poisonous, that I
come and go as I please through the walls, that I hear everything. People
blame things on me—stolen silverware and doors left unlocked. There
is even, I note with pride, a gang named after me now: the Impossibles.
Mostly white-collar criminals.
I’m allowed to mingle with the general population at mealtimes and
in the recreation yard, but I always have a table to myself. I’ve fooled
them too many times by speed or misdirection. By now they know to
serve my food in paper dishes, and when I turn in my tray they count
the plastic utensils, twice. One guard watches my hands as I eat;
another checks under the table. After I sit down, they make me roll up
my sleeves and show my hands, both sides, like a magician.
Look at my hands. The skin’s a little cool—about 96.1 degrees F., if
you’re curious—and a little rigid: a shirt with extra starch. That skin can
stop a bullet; it stopped five of them in my latest arrest as I ran up Seventh
Avenue in my cape and helmet, sweating through the heavy cloth.
The bruises are still there, not quite faded.
I have a few other tricks. I’m strong, much stronger than should be
possible for a mammal my size. Given time and inclination, I could
overturn a semi, or rip an ATM out of a wall. I’m not a city-wrecker, not
on my own. When Lily and I worked together, she handled that part of
it. I’m mostly about the science. That’s my main claim to life in the Special
Containment Wing, where everything down to the showerheads is
either titanium or set two inches deep in reinforced concrete. I’m also
faster than I should be—something in the nerve pathways changed in
Every once in awhile a new prisoner comes after me, hoping to make
his reputation by breaking a prison-made knife against my ribs, a stolen
pencil, or a metal spoon folded over and sharpened. It happens at mealtimes,
or in the exercise yard. There is a premonitory hush as soon as he
steps into the magic circle, the empty space that moves with me. The
guards never step in—maybe it’s policy, to alienate me from the prison
population, or maybe they just enjoy seeing me pull the trick, proof
again that they’re guarding the fourth-most-infamous man alive. I
straighten a little in the metal chair, set my single plastic spoon down on
the folding table.
After the whip crack of the punch, there is silence, ringout, the sighing
collapse. The heap of laundry is carried away and I’ll be left alone
again until the next tattooed hopeful makes his play. Inside, I want to
keep going, keep fighting until the bullets knock me down, but I never
do. I’m smarter than that. There are stupid criminals and there are
smart criminals, and then there is me.
This is so you know. I haven’t lost any of what I am, my intrinsic
menace, just because they took away my devices, my tricks, and my
utility belt. I’m still the brilliant, the appalling, the diabolical Doctor
Impossible, damn it. And yes, I am invincible.
All superheroes have an origin. They make a big deal of it, the story of
how they got their powers and their mission. Bitten by a radioactive
bug, they fight crime; visited by wandering cosmic gods, they search for
the lost tablets of so-and-so, and avenge their dead families. And villains?
We come on the scene, costumed and leering, colorfully working
out our inexplicable grudge against the world with an oversized zap
gun or cosmic wormhole. But why do we rob banks rather than guard
them? Why did I freeze the Supreme Court, impersonate the Pope, hold
the Moon hostage?
I happen to know they’ve got practically nothing in my file. A few old
aliases, newspaper clippings, testimony from a couple of old enemies.
A transcript from the Peterson School, and, of course, the accident
report. The flash was visible for miles. That’s what people talk about
when they talk about who I am, a nerd with an attitude and subpar lab
skills. But there was another accident, one that nobody saw, a slow disaster
that started the morning I arrived there. Nowadays it has a name,
Malign Hypercognition Disorder. They’re trying to learn about it from
me, trying to figure out whose eyes are going to be looking out at them
from behind a mask in thirty years.
I have a therapist here, “Steve,” a sad-eyed Rogerian I’m taken to see
twice a week in a disused classroom. “Do you feel angry?” “What did
you really want to steal?” The things I could tell him—secrets of the universe!
But he wants to know about my childhood. I try to relax and
remind myself of my situation—if I kill him, they’ll just send another.
It could be worse—there are stories villains tell one another about
the secret facilities out in the Nevada desert, the maximum-intensity
enhanced containment facilities; for the ones they catch but are truly
afraid of, the ones they can’t kill and can only barely control. Fiftymeter
shafts filled with concrete, frozen cells held to near absolute zero.
Being here means playing a delicate game—I’m in the lion’s jaws. I
mustn’t scare them too badly. But Steve has his questions. “Who was
the first one to hit you?” “When did you leave home?” “Why did you
want to control the world? Do you feel out of control?” The past creeps
in, perils of an eidetic memory.
It’s a danger in my line of work to tell too much; I know that now.
And last time I told them everything, giving it all away like a fool, how I
was going to do it, how escape was impossible. And they just listened,
smirking. And it would have worked, too. The calculations were correct.
By the time the bus came that morning, it was raining pretty hard, and
the world was a grayed-out sketch of itself, the bus a dim hulk as it
approached, the only thing moving. Inside the bus shelter, the rain
drummed hollowly on the plastic ceiling, and my glasses were fogging
up. It was 6:20 a.m., and my parents and I were standing, stunned and
half-awake, in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson’s in Iowa.
I knew that it was a special morning and that I should be feeling
something, that this was one of the Big Events in a person’s life, like
marriage or a bar mitzvah, but I had never had a Big Event and I didn’t
know what it was supposed to be like. An hour earlier, my alarm had
gone off; my mother stuffed me into a scratchy sweater that was starting
to itch in the late September warmth. We trooped out to the car and
drove through the gray, silent town, the deserted city center, and turned
into the lot by the mighty I-80. When my mother cut the engine, there
were a few seconds of silence as we listened to the rain rapping on the
ceiling. Then my father said, “We’ll wait with you at the bus stop.” So we
dashed across the steaming asphalt to the Plexiglas shelter. The rain siz-
zled down and cars and trucks swooshed by, and we stood there. Maybe
someone said something.
I was thinking about how that fall everything would start without
me at Lincoln Middle School. In a few days, everyone I knew would be
meeting their new teachers, and the accelerated math class would be
starting geometry, doing proofs. In June, we had gotten a letter from the
Iowa Department of Education, offering to send me to a new school
they were starting called the Peterson School of Math and Science. The
year before, they gave a standardized test during homeroom, and everyone
who scored in the top half a percentile got a letter. They gave me a
talk about whether I would miss my friends or Mr. Reynolds, my math
I told them I would go. I didn’t think about how weird it was going to
be, waiting for a bus with my clothes in bags. The kids at school would
remember me as the kid who never talked, who drew weird pictures
and always wore the same clothes, and cried when he dropped his
lunch, who was supposed to be really good at math. . . . Whatever happened
to him? Where did he disappear to?
The bus pulled in; a man got out and checked the fistful of signed
forms I held out to him, then threw my bags into the compartment that
opened in the metal side. My parents hugged me, and I climbed the
steps into a warm darkness that smelled of strangers’ breath. I walked
unsteadily into the dimly fluorescent-lit space, glimpsing faces passing
in rows, until I found a pair of empty seats just as the bus roared and
pulled out of the parking lot. I remembered to look for a last glimpse of
my parents watching me leave, then we surged up the on-ramp and into
through traffic. Suddenly, I hated the sopping morning and the impersonal
helpfulness of my parents, always a little held back, as if they were
afraid to know me; and I was glad to be gone, glad to have no part of
them, to be where no one knew me, away from the quiet of their house,
their self-restraint. I had a dim inner vision of myself rising up in flame.
We kept driving through the slate gray morning that grew slowly
brighter, although the rain kept up. Most people were asleep, and every
twenty minutes or so we would stop to pick up another child, another
one of us. Most of the kids must have gotten up at three or four in the
morning to meet the bus as it crossed the state. Everyone was drowsing
or sleeping or staring out the window. I slept a little myself, although it
felt strange to be dozing off among all these strangers. No one talked,
but there was a faintly intimate process taking place among us, a bond
forming out of the shared unfamiliarity of the trip. We wouldn’t forget
it. For all of us, it was the start of a new phase of our lives; a group identity
was taking shape out of the rainy morning and the engine noises
and forty-eight dreaming minds.
For the first few months, we had to sleep in the gym. The student
dormitories hadn’t been finished properly, and they flooded and had to
be rebuilt. Sheets were hung for privacy. We congregated at 9:30 p.m.
and were led to the bathroom in groups of fifteen, and there was the
funny feeling of seeing kids from your math class again in their pajamas,
each holding toothbrush, cup, and toothpaste, being herded sleepily
to the line of sinks. We were seeing one another the way only our
family had seen us. We’d get back, each to our sleeping bag, to stare up
at the moths fluttering around by the ceiling. At 10:15 exactly, the big
overhead lights audibly went out, and a chorus of whispers would rise.
It was hard to fall asleep in such a big room—your ears picked up how
big it was. The girls slept in the library, laid out among the shelves and
study tables, but I never heard how that was, although I tried to imagine
it—quieter, sounds vanishing instead of bouncing around.
Things like this became normal, became the way we lived, waking
curled up on the cool, hard gym floor, having slept the night away just
inside the three-point arc. Cold sun streamed through high windows,
and voices echoed off bleachers and the rafters painted blue, a few kids
already beginning to shout and run around. Some had Walkmen and
listened to pop music long after lights-out, which I found oddly shocking.
The classes themselves were little different from the ones I had taken
at public school. The other students were perhaps more advanced, but
the same classroom dynamics seemed in place, as if determined by
some underlying law of the adolescent educational condition. Jocks
were jocks, cliques were cliques, and students who were popular were
popular again. Nothing had changed; I couldn’t really imagine it changing,
except that I now ate silently in a dining hall, instead of silently with
Thinking about that time is thinking about another person. How
every day I was going to be smarter and better. I was strong, proud, as
sharp as glass, and I was never going to be any other way. I took top
honors in the Junior Putnam, the Westinghouse, and, believe me, I was
just starting to accelerate. Walking into the computer lab, into the smell
of coffee and plastic and the hum of the fluorescents, I was like a prizefighter
smelling sawdust and sweat and hearing the crowd.
I didn’t cultivate friendships, just a nerdy camaraderie with the top
few science students. But I was the usual combination of petty arrogance
and abject loneliness. I was ashamed of my desperate eagerness
to please, and unable to control it. Why should I be singled out from
other people as uniquely gifted, and uniquely worthless? I ate my
lunches alone, and it’s a small blessing my diaries were destroyed.
Junior year I won a Ford Grant for summer study. I’d already decided
not to go home that summer, and the Ford was a lucky excuse. I very
much didn’t want to see my parents. I was already hoping to make
myself into someone else, a person who had nothing to do with their
house or their soft-spoken way of talking, or what I belatedly recognize
as their kindness.
I was bright, but no one suspected how bright I would become.
Prodigies are an old story, and everyone levels off after awhile. Or do
we? I may not be smarter than I was last year, but I know more. And I’m
certainly no stupider.
So I wasn’t always this way. I went to a good school. I wrote lengthy
short stories about my hapless infatuations; one of them was even a
runner-up in the school magazine. All about the girl I saw in the dining
hall, at the party, in the hallway, but never spoke to. I wasn’t very much
different from a lot of people. Except that I was.
Once you get past a certain threshold, everyone’s problems are the
same: fortifying your island and hiding the heat signature from your
fusion reactor. My first subterranean lab was a disastrous little hole
underneath a suburban tract home. One morning, two unsmiling men
in leotards appeared on my doorstep and demanded to see what I was
working on. I said, “It doesn’t do anything.” They didn’t say anything. I
showed them inside. I kept my back to them while I worked my fancy
locks, but who was I kidding? The one in white had that look people do
when they have X-ray vision. Like you know they’re seeing just bones.
I had been as careful as I could be, buying equipment through a
dozen aliases, some of them legitimate government agencies. Waste
heat was going into the aquifer, and there was enough background radiation
that no one should have caught anything I was doing. But obviously
I’d hit one of their trip wires. We didn’t say anything on the way
down. Up close, these two weren’t especially reassuring. The white
one’s eyes were set too far apart, and he only breathed about once a
minute, rapidly, in-out. I didn’t get much on the black guy, except that in
the silences I could hear faint tinny voices and bursts of static, as if a
cybernetic component in his chest were inadvertently picking up shortwave.
It was vaguely embarrassing, like a fart.
It was my first underground lab, and it showed. It was still too hot
because of the reactor, and it looked like shit. I hemmed and hawed and
started up a little dimensional viewer I had been tinkering with. The
Gateway flickered into life, and through the cloudy window we could
see dimly the great misshapen head of one of those alien leviathans
trawling the ether like a whale in the depths. They looked bored. The
black guy, Something -tron, gave me a speech about meddling in things
I didn’t understand; it was obvious they were peeved they weren’t getting
a fight. When they left, they had me tagged as just another backyard
inventor, but I’d made my mistake—I was in the system. They’d
seen my retinas.
Wearing a cape doesn’t do much for your social life. There’s a standing,
unspoken, and utterly unreliable truce among enhanced criminals, the
robot-army, hood-and-mask, good-evening-Mister-Bond set. My peer
group is largely a collection of psychotics, aliens, and would-be emperors.
The result is I meet people like Lily.
Lily was born in the thirty-fifth century. She’s what your sort of person
might call a supervillain, although she might quarrel with the definition.
When you first meet her, you look twice—everyone does. She’s
not quite invisible, merely transparent, a woman of Lucite or water.
When you get to know her face, she has that long-jawed look people
start getting a couple centuries from now, a hollowness around the
eyes. You recognize it when you’ve been up and down the timestream a
few times, and seen a few of the far-future possibilities—the Machine
Kings, or the Nomad Planet, or the Steady State, or the Telephony.
When we met she looked right past me, just another monkey-man, but
I have more in common with her than I do with most of the people I
Lily was born in New Jersey at a time when the Earth was dying. Only
200,000 humans were left, wandering among the empty cities and
grasslands that were once the civilized world. She grew up with a thousand
square miles of grassland and forest and highways for her backyard.
She could drive for days without seeing anyone, up and down the
old I-95, now cracked and overgrown in places. Later, she told me about
the decaying bridges over the East River to the lost city of Brooklyn,
where the towers of Manhattan loomed in the distance. She would find
a stone embankment and eat lunch, down where the warm wind stirred
the stagnant ocean that was slowly rising, year after year.
Her time line was simply a dead end. She told me about the spreading
blight, the dimming, dying sun that she could look straight into without
blinking. The only aliens who came left without saying good-bye. In her
future, the new ruler of the Earth was going to be a particularly successful
strain of algae that had spread in a supercolony up and down the
northwest American seaboard, choking rivers and canals and blooming
for miles out into the sea.
Lily was trained to be a hero, humanity’s long-shot solution, rigor-
ously screened and genetically engineered. A team of desperate scientists
worked for decades, racing against humanity’s decay to put her in
place to save them. She was the best of them, and they trusted her.
A crowd of tense, brave faces was the last thing she saw on the day
she left. Brave Dr. Mendelson, strong-jawed and gray-haired, shook her
hand once and then gave the countdown, and the world faded from
view. The machine that brought her back in time could only work once.
The logic was obvious: She had a list of targets, a suite of weapons layered
into a SmartMesh leotard, and a mission to save the world. Nearly
invisible and devastatingly strong, she succeeded easily.
Years later, when she managed to rebuild her machine and return to
her own time, it was all different. The Earth she had known, and everyone
on it, was gone, and in its place was a world of happy strangers—
the blight had never happened. And she realized she missed the quiet,
and the gentle, mournful quality of her thirty-fifth century. So she
came back to our time, and after a few months she started hitting hightech
and infrastructural targets. She’s still at large, still sabotaging the
world in search of the chain of events that started the blight in her version
of history, the invisible thread leading back to the vanished ruins of
My other best friend is the Pharaoh, a supervillain, and he’s an idiot.
Today was the official last day of fall. There was an early frost last night,
and the chill seeps into the stone here. Most inmates don’t go out in the
yard anymore—no one but me and a few die-hard smokers, idly kicking
the dirt, huddled together against the cold I haven’t felt since 1976. The
wind kicks up dust in the yard, blows leaves through the barbed wire.
Our uniforms flap in the breeze. The trees past the fence are bare now
except for the oaks. I can see beams from the security net bouncing
around in the infrared and ultraviolet, and the KLNJ antenna is pulsing
out low-frequency stuff over the hill.
Somewhere out there, the snow is falling on Lily’s base. I can’t say
where it is, but this late in the year it’s pretty well covered. I used to tune
in to the perimeter cameras just to scan around the woods. It’s buried
deep now—a layer of snow, pine needles, frozen dirt, then crushed
gravel, concrete, water tanks, and then titanium.
I last saw her six years ago, in a bar. She was smoking. I remember
how the match flared and glistened liquidly on her glassy skin, still
scored slightly where a chain gun once caught her. She set the cigarette
to her lips and drew smoke delicately into her throat, to curl in her lungs
like a genie in a smoked-glass bottle. She would only meet me in a public
place. I guess we had trust issues.
I went to a lot of trouble to set up that meeting. I tried to think of a
way to tell her to come back. I’ve never been that good at this kind of
thing, even before I went into hiding. I tried to think of a reason she
would have, a really good argument. But even supervillainesses would
rather date a hero. Sometimes I wonder if there really are just two kinds
of people in the world.
To be a supervillain, you need to have certain things. Don’t bother with
a secret identity, that’s a hero thing. Not that it wouldn’t be convenient
to take off the mask and disappear into the crowds, the houses, the
working world. Perhaps too convenient—why become the most auda-
cious criminal mind on Earth (or at least in the top four), only to slink
off in the other direction when things get difficult? It wouldn’t mean as
much if you could just walk away. When I’m arrested, they read the
litany of my crimes at the trial, longer and gaudier each time. I’ve been
tried for crimes on the Moon, in other centuries, other dimensions, and
I’ll be damned if I won’t put my name on them.
Besides, I never wanted to go back to the way it was before. Heroes
have that weakness, not supervillains. When you become a villain you
cut your ties and head for the bottom. When you threaten to crash an
asteroid into your own planet just so they’ll give you a billion dollars or
substitute your face on the Mona Lisa, there’s no statute of limitations.
So you have to have the courage of your convictions.
You should have a nemesis. Mine is CoreFire, an imbecile gifted with
powers and abilities far beyond mortal man’s. If anything can hurt
CoreFire, I haven’t found it, and don’t think I haven’t looked. I’ve got
others—the Champions, disbanded now but no less dangerous as indi-
viduals. Damsel, Stormcloud’s daughter, and her ex-husband the gymnast,
and that alleged elf they got from somewhere. I’ve fought dozens
of heroes over the years, but CoreFire is the toughest. After all, I made
You need an obsession. The zeta beam, key to ultimate power. Secret
of CoreFire’s might, and the fire that scarred me, and made me what I
am. And you need a goal. Viz, to take over the world.
And you need . . . something else. I don’t know precisely what it is. A
reason. A girl you couldn’t get, parents slain before your eyes, a nagging
grudge against the world. It could be anything. I really don’t know what
it is, the thing that makes you evil, but it does.
Maybe I should have been a hero. I’m not stupid, you know, I do think of
these things. Maybe I should have just gone with the program, joined
up with the winning team, and perhaps I would have, had I been asked.
But I have the feeling they wouldn’t have wanted someone like me.
They’d turn up their noses or just never quite notice me. I knew some of
them in high school, so I know.
I learned what a villain was by watching television news broadcasts
of the big fights in New York and Chicago. I could tell who the villains
were because they always lost, no matter how good their ideas were. I
don’t understand how or when the decision was made for me, but
whenever it was, the moment is lost now, gone away as far off as Lily’s
There are moments in life you just can’t take back. In the terrible
slowness of the accident, I got halfway across the room before realizing
what I’d done. I had time to look back and read the controls, to see the
glass begin to bulge and craze before it shattered, time to notice the
sound of my foot scuffing on the floor, and an urgent musical whine
from one of the generators sliding up the scale.
A dozen people have gotten themselves killed trying to replicate the
effects of that explosion. I turned and saw my future crystallizing out of
a volatile green compound, written out in invisible ink. All my life, I’d
been waiting for something to happen to me, and now, before I was
ready for it, it was. I saw the misadjusted dials and the whirling gauges
and the bubbling green fluid and the electricity arcing around, and a
story laid out for me, my sorry self alchemically transmuted into power
and robots and fortresses and orbital platforms and costumes and alien
kings. I was going to declare war on the world, and I was going to lose.