The world has been living with transhumans for the better part of a century now. They were heroes, villains, symbols. But just over a decade ago, a transhuman terrorist group attacked New Amsterdam, the greatest city in Columbia, and open transhumanism was outlawed. But now a new transhuman threat is growing, and Columbia must seek a new solution so as to meet force with force.
‘Paragon’ begins the twisted superhero tale of Captain Paragon.
He was formless, a dreamer floating in an endless void. Fragments of memory and sensation came to him. The sound of a distant, muffled voice; a blurred face; the sound of a drill and then, for a billion lifetimes, indescribable agony. If he had had a mouth to scream, he would have bellowed out his lungs, but he had no body that he could feel. He was just a confused knot of thoughts and feelings. Was he alive? Had he ever been? What was it to be ‘alive’? He knew these words, but not what they meant. He tried to focus, not knowing what focus was, then lapsed back into the dreamless abyss.
The President took the stand. It was a sombre Autumn day in New Amsterdam. The sky was a clear dome of eye-wrenching blue, and the air was so crystalline he felt like he could strike his finger against it and hear it ring. His breath steamed as he adjusted his scarf, waiting for the signal from the cameras. There must have been thousands jammed into the street in front of him, thousands more in adjoining streets, on rooftops, hanging from balconies and fire escapes. Security was a nightmare, but this was important. This was a special day.
“Ladies, gentlemen…my fellow Columbians…”
They observed a respectful silence. Millions watched from the warm bosoms of their homes, all thinking back to that fateful day eleven years ago, some reflecting on loved ones they had lost forever, others on the changes wrought upon the world by those events, by the collapsing buildings seared into the memory of every Columbian, of everyone all across the world.
“Eleven years ago, not two blocks from where I now stand, the greatest tragedy in Columbian history occurred. I don’t need to tell you about the lives that were lost, about the heroism of New Amsterdam’s fire-fighters, police officers, paramedics and other rescue workers. About the everyday heroism of the people of New Amsterdam, Columbia’s greatest city, who united like no city ever has before and showed the world, showed those who would seek to destroy freedom and democracy, that the power of humanity is greater than the power of evil. That the Columbian spirit is indomitable. That no tragedy, no crime, no matter how despicable, no matter how monstrous, can break our will to survive, to fight, to endure.”
There was cheering and applause, but he held up his hands to quiet it.
“In the wake of that tragedy, that generation-defining moment in Columbian – and world – history, we looked to the perpetrators of this act, searching for an answer, for justice. Those transhuman extremists who took so much from us, who in one instant snuffed out over three-thousand lives; by taking their own lives, they denied us the satisfaction of retribution. And it is well that they did, for revenge is not the same as justice. The distance our attacker’s cowardice gave us from their actions allowed us to reflect, to come to terms, to recognise that transhumanism is a part of all our lives now, for better or worse. The previous administration’s answer to this was the controversial Transhuman Licence Act. I have not repealed this, because I think that powerful forces must be contained, and that men of courage must have the courage to act or they should not dare to call themselves men at all. But we have opened our hands to the transhuman community, addressed their dissatisfactions, heard their cries for equality, for justice. We recognise that now, more than ever, the world is a rapidly changing place. We must control, contain, those whose abilities threaten us and our children, but we must also acknowledge that they are themselves our children, our brothers, our sisters. It is tempting on this, the anniversary of a tragedy of previously unimagined magnitude, to place blame. But no. The time for blame is done. Those who were complicit in this crime have been neutralised, the man who orchestrated it died last year at the hands of an elite team of Columbian Navy SEALs. Today, we must turn our minds to remembrance. To honouring the fallen and remember that now, more than ever, the world is a safer place than it was eleven years ago. God bless you all, and God bless Columbia.”
Someone spoke. A voice, he knew that much, but the words made no sense. Had any words every made sense? What were words? What was sense? He felt cold. What was cold? For one searing instant he was exposed, awake, alive. He tried to reach out, tried to pull the tubes that protruded from his arms, his chest, his legs, his head, free. His throat was so dry. When did he last drink? When did he last eat? Then he was plunged back into the warmth, into the silent, slumbering darkness. He felt nothing. Knew nothing. Was nothing.
“Your speech polled well,” Catherine told the President. “You’re up five points.”
“Polls don’t mean shit,” he growled.
“Sure, but they’re better going in this direction than the other, right?”
“True enough.” He leant back in the leather chair, craning his neck back so he could stare out of the window at the tops of the clouds scudding past. “But none of it will mean shit if we fuck this up…”
“If we…mess it up, Mr President, we’ll sweep it under the rug.”
“This one might be harder to sweep, Cath. This one’s gonna stick.”
“Then we’d better make sure it doesn’t go wrong.”
He nodded. “Or, come November, it means both our asses.”
“You’re still ahead,” she told him with a reassuring smile.
“For now. For now.”
Air Force One landed on a dusty airstrip, in the middle of a desert, near a facility not marked on any maps. General Hepburn was there to greet them, but the President kept it brusque. “Just take me to the lab. I want to see this.”
“I heard your speech, Mr President,” Hepburn told him as they walked briskly across the tarmac, “inspiring.”
“And none if means a damn thing if this science project of yours hasn’t worked. I need something to give people that’s stronger than just words.”
“Oh he’ll be stronger than words, Mr President. Much stronger.”
“No talk. Show me.”
They made their way down non-descript corridors. The facility was shabby, well-used. Other work had been done here, years before; forgotten experiments with the cruel science of a previous age. No one knew this place existed, not even the conspiracy nuts had an inkling. Compared to this, Area 51 was Las Vegas. Hepburn entered a five-digit code into an access panel, and a door unlocked. They pounded down metal stairs, into the underground part of the facility. Now they were protected by six feet of solid concrete. Dull florescent lights led the way down bleak grey corridors. They came to a blast door. “Is this it?” the President asked.
“Through here, yes.”
He nodded curtly. Hepburn placed his hand on a console, let it read his fingerprints, spoke his name, and the vault opened, revealing the most advanced laboratory on the planet. Catherine shivered. “I should have brought a coat…”
“My apologies, ma’am,” Hepburn said, “I should have warned you. Obviously the laboratory must be kept cold because of the tissue samples.”
“Tissue, yes,” the President murmured.
They walked past ranks of benches, pulsing machines, banks of Petri dishes, huge humming refrigerators until, at the end, they came to the incubators.
“Mr President.” A woman stepped into view, wearing a lab coat and carrying a clipboard. She was in her eighties now, but slim, smooth-skinned and with eyes like burnished steel.
“Ah, Mr President, may I introduce you to…”
“I know who this is.” He held out a hand. “Columbian Woman.”
“I prefer to be called Janet Goodman now, Mr President.”
“Of course. I’m sorry Ms Goodman.” She took his hand. He could tell she was holding back, trying not to crush every bone in his hand. “It’s not every day I meet the leader of the free world,” she said with a smile.
“And not every day I meet a living legend.”
“Not living any more, at least not as far as the rest of the world is concerned.”
“I believe the consensus amongst the voting public was that rumours of your death were somewhat exaggerated.”
“They think I’m immortal,” she glanced at the nearest bubbling tank, its green phosphorescence reflecting off her unnaturally youthful skin, “and I suppose if this works, I might be, in a way. I can’t have children, you know.”
“I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.”
“The T-Event,” she explained, “the radiation that changed me and the others, it also damaged us. Steven died of leukaemia last year.”
“I know. I attended his funeral.”
“Of course. We don’t know whether those who are being born now will be the same. Perhaps transhumanism will die out in a generation.”
“Unless this works…” Catherine said.
“Unless this works,” Goodman said with a nod.
“I didn’t know you were part of this project,” the President admitted as they walked down the line of incubators.
“Ms Goodman’s involvement was kept on a strictly need-to-know basis,” Hepburn explained, “we didn’t want to risk anyone guessing what we were up to. As soon as one of the world’s most famous former costumed heroes was linked to any sort of government project, it would set the rumours flying. We need to wait for the right time.”
“I agree,” the President said, “but just what is your role here, Ms Goodman?”
“I’m its beating heart.”
They had reached the largest and most impressive of the incubation units. It whirred menacingly, and cast a ghastly greenish light several feet around it. In the murky depths, something twitched, something whose shape seemed disturbingly human. “That’s me in there,” she whispered, “my DNA, working changes on the subject. At least in part.”
“You were one of the donors?” Catherine asked, aghast.
Goodman nodded. “My transformed chromosomes, my physiology used as a template.”
“Not just Ms Goodman’s of course,” Hepburn added, “the subject has been modified by samples derived from nearly every transhuman to which we have access.”
“Against my wishes,” Goodman said quietly.
“Excuse me?” the President dragged his eyes away from the indistinct shape within the chamber and raised an eyebrow.
“What Ms Goodman is referring to,” Hepburn explained with a sigh, “is the ratification of order omega-five.”
“Using his DNA was a mistake,” Goodman said.
“Has it caused problems with the process?” the President asked.
“Not that we know of,” Hepburn answered hastily, “Ms Goodman is just…superstitious…”
“Iron Cross should have been killed, not frozen,” she said, not taking her eyes from the incubator, “you didn’t see what he did. What he was. You weren’t there in 1947 when Steven and I found his labs. When we put his abominations out of their misery.”
Hepburn shook his head. “That’s ancient history…”
“Not for me.”
He could feel his heart beat for the first time in years. It hurt. An endless, rhythmic pounding in the core of the bundle of sensation that might once have been his body. He was so hungry, so thirsty. He thrashed and raged at the prison his meagre physical form had become, but nothing happened. He remained motionless, suspended in space, immobile, paralysed. He tried to scream again. Tried to wrench himself back into consciousness, to escape this maddening, hellish confinement. He had been a man once? Was that true? What was a man? What was once? His bones hurt. What were bones? Did he have bones? No, bones were soft, pliable things compared to what he had. He had pistons of iron. Maybe he was a machine? A machine of flesh and blood then. Tortured flesh, toxic blood. How long had he been here? He had no sense of time, was not even sure time was a real concept. Was he dead? Was this what death was like? Formless, trapped, going insane within the confines of his own mind? What God would make a hell this monstrous? What God would make him, and subject him to this torment? Who was he? How did he get here? What was here? What was he?
“The genetic modifications are just the beginning,” Goodman explained later as they sat in the dining room that had clearly been hastily put together to accommodate this visit. The chef from Air Force One did the catering, naturally. “We graft the transhuman DNA into his bone marrow and let it replicate itself, like a virus, taking over his system. The changes begin slowly, but by placing him in a medically induced coma, we’re able to accelerate the process. Then the surgery begins.”
“Surgery?” Catherine was just cutting into a slice of turbot, then thought better of it and placed her knife and fork aside with a grimace.
“Grafts to strengthen the skeleton, additional engineered organs to improve his metabolic rate, to make him stronger, faster, more resistant to injury. And, of course, extensive procedures on his cerebellum, not only to improve his reaction times and alter his responses to certain stimuli, but also to stimulate the nerve clusters that will, in time, grow into the T-organ that will turn him from a mere human into…well…”
“Into something like you,” the President said.
“Yes. He was already at the peak of physical perfection. A Marine. The best we could find.”
“What’s his name?” Catherine asked.
“Don’t answer that,” the President interrupted, holding up a hand, “I don’t know either, and I don’t want to. Whoever he was before, it’s not relevant now.”
“Quite so,” Goodman said, “he may not even remember his former life. The structure of his brain has been altered so extensively…the results are unpredictable.”
No one said anything for a little while, but the food remained untouched. Eventually, the President shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. “There’s something else I need to ask you about. Both of you. This project has taken many years to reach fruition.”
“That’s right,” Hepburn said.
“Long years of work. Of science and experimentation.”
“What do you want to know?” Goodman asked.
“The failures. The ones that came before.”
“What about them?”
“What did you do with them?”
“Incinerated,” said Hepburn.
“Not entirely,” Goodman added, “Some of the material was…recycled…”
Catherine looked horrified. “For this one? That’s…ghoulish…”
“This is war,” the President said in a low voice, “and we have to fight fire with fire.”
Fire. He felt like he was made of fire. His whole body wavering and shuddering like an electric flame. He could feel his mouth opening, not sure whether he controlled it or not, not sure if it was even his own mouth. He felt like he was being peeled from the inside out. All was darkness, but he could sense the light beyond his eyelids. He was alive. This was real. The sensations were too strong to ignore now. Pain. Pain and fire. Someone had turned him inside out. Someone had ripped him apart; unmade him. Who did this? He wanted to hurt them, but most of all he just wanted to die. To be nothing. To stop this pain. He wanted that more than anything else in the narrow confines of his hellish universe. What had he done to deserve this?
“He will be the embodiment of the Columbian Dream, Catherine,” the President said as they sat on Air Force One again, up above the clouds once more, on the way back to Washington. “A poor kid from Harlem, raised by his grandmother, battled his way into the Marines, overcame racial prejudice, poverty, lack of education, became a hero. Crippled in an accident and now reborn as a living symbol of freedom and democracy. As…a…a…I don’t know what yet…but something…”
“Is any of that true?” she asked.
He waved a hand. “Some. Enough. It won’t matter.”
“What will he do?”
“He’ll be sanctioned. He’ll do what he needs to do. Defend freedom. Fight our enemies overseas, keep our streets safe. The first licensed costumed hero since the Unmasking. This is a new dawn.”
“I think you’re right,” Catherine said as she stared out of the window at the gradually reddening horizon, “but for who?”
A week later, a press conference was called. The President stood before the assembled reporters, before the cameras, the eyes of the world upon him, and he made the announcement.
“Eleven years ago, a near-fatal blow was struck against the forces of democracy. Transhuman terrorists, energised by agitators from overseas, inspired by the prejudice they experienced every day, rose up and used their abilities – abilities science does still not fully understand – to destroy New Amsterdam’s Global Trade Centre and slay, in less than a second, three-thousand-two-hundred-and-seventeen people. Most were Columbians, but almost every nation on Earth lost a brother or sister in that disaster. The backlash killed the perpetrators too, but their co-conspirators in foreign lands remained, and they continued to plot against us, committing more atrocities against Columbia and its allies. We have hounded them, we have led wars against the nations that harboured them, and we have had some victories. Their leader, the warlord known as Red Dragon, was finally brought to justice and killed last year. But others survive, and they have not stopped pursuing their vendetta. We have strong allies, and our technology and our will to win is unmatched, but these are not humans: they are transhumans, individuals whose very genetic structure was modified by the T-Event eighty years ago, or the children of those affected by it indirectly. We cannot compete with their strength, their intellect, their incredible powers.” He paused, let the enormity of the task before them sink in. He had them exactly where he needed them.
His eyes opened.
“Wake up…” someone whispered.
It was too bright to make anything out but vague shapes. He was dry. And cold. And…he could feel himself. He was lying down. No longer formless and floating. He tried to lift his arms.
“No, not yet. It will take time.” A woman. Older. Strangely…motherly…
He tried to speak, to say something.
“Sleep,” she said.
He didn’t want to. He had slept a lifetime. A dozen lifetimes. A hundred. “No,” he rasped.
“You need to rest. The process isn’t finished yet.”
“No. Wh…who am I?”
“You are…that’s a complicated question, and a complicated answer.”
He clenched his fists, found a new strength, raised his arms. He saw himself for the first time, saw his hands, sinewy and iron-hard. He opened his mouth again, and let out a wordless roar of rage that reverberated around whatever fresh prison that now held him. “WHO AM I?” he screamed, “WHAT AM I?!”
“My fellow Columbians,” the President continued, “soon, the whole world will learn that we are not going to be pushed around anymore. Our enemies will learn afresh the strength of our resolve, and the power of our technology and indefatigable quest for justice and freedom. And they will tremble, yes they will tremble…”
“WHO AM I?!”
“…they will tremble at the very mention…”
“WHO AM I?!”
“…of the name…”
“…of Captain Paragon.”