Captain Paragon, the transhuman embodiment of all that Columbia stands for, is on deployment overseas, battling terrorist insurgents. But, back home, a dangerous transhuman criminal has broken free and is about to wreak bloody vengeance on the streets of New Amsterdam. This fight is the one Paragon was created for – but the challenges he faces when he comes face to face with one of his own kind are more than physical.
Note: this story contains some examples of inflammatory racial language in the context of character dialogue. Use of such terms should not be taken as any kind of endorsement of similar views by the author.
‘Iron Hand’ continues the twisted superhero tale of Captain Paragon.
The prison officer led the handcuffed man down the corridor, past the seemingly endless rows of cells. Men in orange jumpsuits watched their progress with a mixture of interest and bored indifference. A few shouted out, but the man in the cuffs looked like he could handle himself. He was a little taller than average, white, with close-cropped blonde hair and blue eyes. He carried himself calmly and moved in a way that suggested a familiarity with violence, and a well-built physique beneath his own prison overalls. More pertinently, his hands, forearms and neck were covered in tattoos, including a prominent swastika on his right arm. The guard drew up and unlocked a cell, then jerked his head towards the door. “In. You know the drill.”
The prisoner sized up his new cellmate. He was an exceptionally tall, broad black man with a web of scar tissue across one side of his face, and likewise tattooed, albeit with somewhat different motifs. “Here?” the blonde man asked. “You sure about that?”
“Pretty sure,” the guard smiled. “I’ll let you…uh…settle in.” He waited for the prisoner to step inside the cell, then slid the barred door shut and locked it. His charge turned around and put his cuffed hands to the bars so he could be released. “Nighty night,” the guard said, leaving them alone.
The newcomer turned back to look at the cell with distaste, then walked past his cellmate and sat on one of the bunks. He leant forward, clasping his hands in front of him. “What’s your name, punk?” his cellmate asked. He didn’t sit down, but remained looming over him, occupying the centre of the cell like a glowering monolith. He seemed to fill the room.
“The guards tell me I gotta go by ‘Liam’.”
Joel pointed. “Nice ink. Where’d you get it?”
Liam looked up and met the other man’s eyes. He was still completely calm, despite the obvious danger. “I was in the Tank. You know, upstate.”
Joel frowned slightly. “The Tank? Hold on a second…”
Liam leant back on his bunk, and slowly cracked each of his knuckles, waiting for him to catch up.
“I know you. You’re the frea…”
“Transhuman,” Liam corrected, “or if you wanna get poetic, übermensch.”
“Yeah…yeah! I remember you. The neo-Nazi guy.” He laughed and clicked his fingers. “What did you call yourself? Uh…somethin’ like…uh…”
“It’s just Liam now.”
“Yeah, I bet, I bet. Man, would you get a load a’ this, huh? Weren’t you gonna get that…uh…what was it? Atrophy treatment? Yeah.”
“S’why I’m in here now,” Liam said, spreading his hands. “They saturated my brain with lethal radiation, shrank my T-organ to nothin’, an’ now I’m just like you. Well,” he snorted, “not quite.”
“Oh this is great,” Joel said with a predatory grin. “Someone musta’ wanted you to get hurt real bad, little man. Now, lis’n up,” he said, leaning in, “I ain’t ever gonna let you forget what you were, understand? What’s gon’ happen to you in here, it’s justice, understand? You done a lotta bad shit in your life, an’ now your prejudiced ass gon’ pay, you Nazi piece a’ shit. Now what’d you used to call yourself, huh?”
“I’m just Liam,” he replied in a low voice.
“Nah, nah. You ain’t gonna hide from your past. Not with that ink. What was it? Damn…you was…uh…Iron somethin’, yeah. Iron…damn.” He clicked his fingers again, trying to remember a years old news story.
“It ain’t important,” Liam snarled.
“Oh it’s important, boy…” Joel grabbed Liam by his lapels and hauled him up to his feet. “Tell me who you were!”
“No?” Joel let out a roar of laughter. “Ain’t you get it, boy? You ain’t shit now. You ain’t Iron whatever now, understand?”
“It was Hand.”
Liam smashed his forehead into Joel’s nose with a crunch of shattering bone. Joel staggered back with a roar. “Iron Hand!” Liam bellowed. “My name is Iron Hand!”
“Was,” Joel corrected, dabbing a big hand to his broken nose. “Now you as human as the rest of us.”
“Sure I am,” Iron Hand said with a grin. Then he charged Joel, covering the space between them in less than a second, moving so fast he seemed to blur, and drove his fist hard into his cellmate’s gut. The force lifted the huge man right off his feet and he smashed into the ceiling with a shower of plaster before falling hard onto the concrete floor. He groaned faintly as he lay there, and Iron Hand aimed a kick at his head that silenced him once and for all and left a bloody shower across the back wall. “I was gonna wait a little while to do this,” he reflected, “but I guess there ain’t no time like the present.”
“What the hell’s going on here?!” someone shouted from outside, and then two guards were on the scene, surveying the carnage Iron Hand had left.
“Oh good. Could you fellas do me a favour an’ unlock this cage?”
“Jesus Christ!” They were already fumbling out tasers, so Iron Hand leapt towards the bars, reached through and grabbed the closest one’s head. It might have been the same guard who showed him to his cell – he wasn’t sure. Then he yanked him towards the door, causing the bars to buckle with the force, and shattering his skull with a spray of gore. A taser barb, fired more in panic than rage, glanced harmlessly off his shoulder.
Iron Hand eyeballed the remaining guard. “I ain’t gonna ask again, son.”
“You…you’re supposed to be h…human now…they said…”
“They ain’t know shit.” Iron Hand grabbed him around the throat, squeezing ever so slightly, and watched the man’s eyes nearly pop out of his head. “Open the fuckin’ door, an’ maybe I’ll leave enough for an open casket.”
Three minutes later, Iron Hand was walking back down the corridor as alarms rang across the prison. He’d unlocked enough cells with the keys stolen from the second guard to leave a riot in his wake and watched over his shoulder with satisfaction as his brothers spilled out of their cells and black and white fell upon one other, re-enacting society’s age old dance for another day. He raised a bloodied fist over his head. “I am Iron Hand!” he bellowed. “The son of Iron Cross, transhuman hero of the Third Reich! Join me to wipe the scourge of these mongrel races from the face of the Earth! Join me to realise your destiny, my Aryan brothers! Join me, and live forever as übermenschen!”
Once, he had been the great white hope of Columbia, before his eyes had been opened. Then he had become the scourge of New Amsterdam. They had caged him, and tried to rob him of his manifest destiny, so now he would wreak a terrible revenge. He would realise his potential at last, and complete the work his clone-father had begun seventy years ago. The Fourth Reich would rise, and Iron Hand would be its leader. “Übermensch!” he roared. “Übermensch!”
They screamed it back at him. There was nothing the guards could do now. He was invincible and so were his newly won warriors.
The gun in the insurgent’s hand clicked uselessly and his eyes went wide. He was filthy, his face encrusted with dried blood, his uniform soiled and, around him, his entire unit was dead or dying. Captain Paragon reached out and wrenched the pistol from his enemy’s hand, breaking the man’s fingers in the process and crunched it into scrap in his gloved fist as the man sank to his knees, howling in pain. Paragon threw the mangled weapon into the mud and finished the screaming terrorist off with a backhand across the jaw. Bone shattered and he fell lifelessly into the muck, nothing but a bloody ruin.
The rain was coming down hard now, and rivers of mud wound their way down the hillside. It was only afternoon, but the sky was as black as night. Lighting flashed overhead as Paragon squelched up the rise to where the rest of the special forces squad awaited him. Their commander, Lieutenant Gutierrez, surveyed the carnage. “That was…impressive, Captain,” she said in a voice of quiet awe.
Paragon looked around. When they’d assaulted this emplacement, there were at least twenty insurgents holding it. Now they were comprehensively neutralised, and the soldiers had barely fired a shot. He was used to taking point now: bursting through any defences and taking on the enemy in hand to hand combat, where his physical abilities made him essentially invulnerable. So far, they’d encountered only a handful of transhumans with the opposing force, and none had been a match for him. But when they were mere men like this, the results were always much the same. Those few left alive were in no position to be questioned. But he’d been deployed here for one purpose and one purpose only: shock and awe. His objective was to sow terror. To strike with irresistible force, to leave devastation in his wake, to show their enemies that Columbia was not to be taken lightly. His cape, once a pristine white, was now indelibly marked with dark blood stains, and his uniform was scuffed and torn in places. He’d been on active duty for weeks. He needed no rest. When this unit returned to base, he’d rendezvous with another, and carry on.
“What do we do with the bodies?” one soldier asked. His face looked a little pale.
Paragon strode past him. “Leave them to be discovered.”
“You heard him,” Gutierrez said to the squad, “we’re done here. Let’s head back to the patrol route.”
The terrain was rocky and barren, but when the rains came the whole region became a stinking quagmire. Visibility was low as they headed back up into the hills. Paragon led. Paragon always led. He’d been with this squad for only a couple of days now, and they were still getting used to the punishing pace he set. “You were a marine, right?” Gutierrez asked him as they clambered over the slippery rocks, trying to hug the cover as best they could in case there was enemy artillery nearby.
“So they tell me,” Paragon answered. Everyone else sounded out of breath, but for him the treacherous climb was no more difficult than strolling through a meadow on a summer’s day. Not that he had any memory of ever doing such a thing.
“You don’t remember your old life?” Gutierrez pressed. Her breath was coming fast, but she had impressive stamina for an ordinary human.
“I am Captain Paragon, nothing else is of consequence.”
“What about when you get off duty? Who are you then?”
“I don’t get off duty.”
Paragon thought about it. “This is my first deployment. I’ve only returned to base to be debriefed twice. My orders are radioed through. No one told me I could rest.”
They reached the top of the long ridge than ran north-west for about four miles before dipping down into a low valley where the main Columbian camp was located. The patrol would take them wide of that, down into the network of gullies and ravines to the south where insurgent cells were thought to be constantly setting up new emplacements ahead of a major assault within the next few weeks. They were too numerous and disparate to eliminate through conventional means, and the terrain too rough to send in tanks. Even airstrikes were ineffective due to the sheltered valleys. But since Paragon’s arrival, they were on the back foot, in retreat across all quadrants. Now, he looked down at the forbidding landscape, partially hidden by a grey curtain of rain, and tried to imagine where the next engagement would take place. Smoke rose from the battlefield they’d just left: they’d been deploying artillery which was now destroyed thanks to him. None of the insurgents would be fool enough to investigate what had happened. They knew him by now. So they’d be falling back…he turned the other way to look over the wide alkali flats that stretched off in the other direction. As the rains intensified, they’d turn into unassailable mud, an endless reeking swamp from one horizon to the next. No one would attack over that, unless they were driven. He looked at the squad. As highly trained as they were, the tough climb so soon after an engagement had exhausted them and some still looked wide-eyed by the destruction they’d witnessed. But still they followed him, whether out of loyalty or fear, he didn’t know, or even care particularly. Yes, they followed. He squinted into the distance, at the fading sky that rumbled with thunder, at the endless steppe occasionally illuminated by flashes of lightning. “That’s where they’ll come from,” he said.
“Captain?” Gutierrez asked as she stepped up beside him.
“These fights in the valleys are just a distraction. They’re gathering out there, and they’ll assault right across the flats. We need to reinforce the passes up into the hills from the other side.”
“No one can cross that with a full kit and then fight,” another soldier said.
“They will though. They’re marshalling their strength in the east, and they’ll strike while we’re eliminating the cells nearby. We’ve only met a few transhumans so far, but we know they have more. And Hellhawk’s followers will go wherever he leads them.”
They had identified the leader of the insurgents some time ago; Hellhawk was an extremely dangerous and powerful renegade transhuman. He was supposedly created in a stolen Soviet atomic chamber somewhere in northern Pakistan, and his abilities were mysterious. Those who had survived engagements involving him though said that he was capable of incredible feats of telekinesis.
Gutierrez still looked doubtful, but eventually she nodded. “As you say, Captain. We’ll head along the eastern side of the escarpment and check for enemy activity along the passes. Then we’ll…Captain?”
Paragon’s radio bead was chiming in his ear and he stepped to one side to answer it with a tap. “Paragon,” he barked.
“Captain, this is Gamma Base. We’ve received a message from the Hexagon. You’re being recalled to Columbia.”
He frowned. “But the mission…”
“Will have to carry on without you. There’s a situation back home that requires your attention. These orders come from General Hepburn himself. You’re to return to base as soon as possible for debriefing, then you’ll be going home.”
“Understood.” He silenced the radio and turned to Gutierrez, who was looking at him questioningly. “Apologies, Lieutenant, but I’m afraid the situation has changed and I will be reporting back to base camp immediately. Proceed with the plan, and await orders when you reach the next checkpoint.”
“Are you coming back?”
“I have no idea.” They exchanged a brief salute and Paragon immediately broke into a sprint. He ran along the ridge, his bloodied cape flying out behind him as his pace got faster and faster and faster, until he was moving as swiftly as the wind. He’d be at Gamma Base in minutes. It felt good to finally break free. He didn’t give Hellhawk another thought. He had new orders now.
Janet Goodman entered the meeting room with a mild look on her face. She met General Hepburn’s eyes, and he at least had the decency to look embarrassed. She took a seat near the end of the table. “I’d apologise for being late,” she said primly, “but I wasn’t invited.”
“This is really a military matter…” Major Colbert started to say, but Hepburn silenced him with a raised hand.
“Ms Goodman, while I appreciate your insight into the Paragon project, at this stage your role is really only to act in an…”
“Oh shut up. You’ve known me too long to try the same bullshit you use on these stiffs.” She gestured around the table at the high-ranking officers. “No offence, gentlemen. Now, would anyone like to tell me what’s going on?”
“Paragon is being recalled to Columbia,” Hepburn explained.
“I know that,” she snapped, “but why? His mission isn’t done, is it? Unless the reports have been doctored? I’ve learned never to underestimate military duplicity. Again, no offence.”
“He’s doing very well, Ms Goodman,” Colonel Rogers said. He was a stolid fellow with a very neat moustache.
“So why bring him back? That’s hardly going to help things, is it?”
“The enemy are in complete disarray thanks to his work,” Colbert said, “we don’t anticipate a counter-attack for months.”
“Now he’s on the way home, you should expect one tomorrow. Hellhawk won’t sit idle now he knows he’s just dealing with ordinary men and women.”
“You overestimate Hellhawk’s intelligence network,” Colonel Black said with a brief, typically emotionless smile, “he’ll never known Paragon isn’t there.”
“I’ve learnt never to underestimate a transhuman, colonel,” Goodman replied archly, “and you can dress all the soldiers you want in blue spandex, but it’s not going to fool anyone.”
“We’re deviating from the point,” Hepburn said, “Paragon is coming home for a very good reason. I was going to tell you about this in private, Ms Goodman, but since you’re here, you might as well hear it at the same time as everyone else. We have a security breach in New Amsterdam: a known transhuman terrorist has escaped incarceration and is already causing havoc. It happened less than an hour ago.”
Once the hubbub had died down, it was Goodman who spoke up. “Which transhuman?”
“I see. And how did he escape from the Transhuman Containment Facility?” No one met her eyes. She looked around, waiting for an answer. “Well? What am I missing here?”
“He wasn’t in the Tank,” Hepburn admitted, “we transferred him to an ordinary prison this morning. He escaped in less than half an hour.”
“What?! Why would you put someone as dangerous as Iron Hand in with general population?! He’s a transhuman for God’s sake!”
“He’d undergone treatment,” Colonel Black said.
“Treatment? What kind of…” She froze as realisation dawned, and had to work hard not to upend the massive table there and then. She could do it too. Instead, she settled for clenching her fists as tightly as possible. She looked at Hepburn, and the fury in her eyes caused him to visibly wilt. “You might have at least told me you were going ahead with a test on a real subject,” she said, surprised at how calmly her voice came out. “Or was that a military matter too?”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Hepburn said softly, “I did raise an official objection when I heard the order had been signed. Needless to say, it didn’t originate here.”
“Just the idea that you would callously irradiate and…and…mutilate a Columbian citizen like that…”
“Iron Hand is a terrorist,” Colonel Black interrupted.
“Don’t try my patience, colonel,” Goodman barked, pointing a warning finger at him across the table. “I was opposed to this so-called ‘atrophy therapy’ from day one. It’s barbaric. The T-Event was a natural phenomenon, and although there have been artificially created transhumans – not least our very own Captain Paragon – the idea of intentionally maiming a living being in such a fashion is not the sort of thing we stand for. Not the sort of thing I stand for. It’s not often that I bring up my past, gentleman, but I was Columbian Woman. I was the embodiment of our great nation’s ideals, for better or worse, and any stain on its character is, implicitly, a stain on me.”
There was a long silence, and then Hepburn spoke. “There’s something you should know about Iron Hand, Janet,” he said.
“He wasn’t a natural transhuman. Not exactly.”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Paragon is…not the first of his kind…”
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” he sighed, “that we tried to do this before. To create a transhuman operative in service to the government. Don’t misunderstand me: you, Steven and the others who helped to win the War were better than we ever deserved. But it has always been a dream of the military to operate its own corps of transhuman heroes, individuals who were inducted into service from day one, who were understood and…controlled.”
“Precisely. But before Paragon, there was Iron Hand.”
Goodman massaged her temples as she leant forward on the table. “This is a lot to take in,” she said. “Who was he before?”
“He wasn’t anyone. We bred him ourselves.”
“He was made via artificial insemination, with some rather crude genetic manipulation to the zygote. We implanted the embryo in a surrogate and, when the infant was born, he was raised in a specialised facility.”
“My God,” she said. “How was this ever green lit?”
“This was during the Cold War,” Colonel Black explained. “We were desperate. The Soviets were doing the same with their atomic chambers. It was an arms race.”
“Iron Hand was originally codenamed Justice. At first he was unconditionally loyal, but we couldn’t keep the truth about his origins from him forever. When he found out…he changed…”
Goodman frowned. “His origins? You mean that he was conceived in a lab?”
“No…I mean…whose DNA we used…”
Abruptly, everything slotted into place. Goodman gripped the edge of the table, trying to contain herself again. She could hear it creak under the pressure and, instinctively, all the officers drew back slightly. “You idiots,” she said in a dangerously low voice. “You used Iron Cross’s sperm, didn’t you? You cloned him from a Nazi war criminal!”
“We used some of the same DNA in the Paragon project…” Major Colbert interjected.
“I know that! What I didn’t know was that you were dumb enough to make that mistake twice! Jesus Christ!”
“We didn’t know, Janet,” Hepburn said. “He was never supposed to find out but, when he did, he vowed to continue his father’s work. He went insane. He renamed himself and went on the run. When he resurfaced, it took everything we had to bring him down.”
“I know that part. And now he’s free again? I’m assuming the atrophy treatment didn’t work then?”
“We thought it did,” Hepburn said, “but it seems he somehow managed to cheat the tests.”
“Like I said,” Goodman said, standing up, “never underestimate a transhuman. Let’s hope Paragon keeps his wits about him when he goes toe-to-toe with this thug. If he finds out what you’ve just told me, you might have another mess on your hands. Paragon is exponentially more powerful than any known transhuman.”
“We just want Iron Hand apprehended,” said Hepburn.
“I’m sure.” She turned to leave, but then stopped at the door. “I assume you want to debrief Paragon when he returns, but I’d like to carry out my own personal assessment of him too, if that’s all right. As you know, I have a…unique…relationship with him. I need to know what he’s thinking after so long in the field.”
Hepburn nodded. “Of course.”
“Let me know as soon as he arrives.” She walked out of the door, still amazed that she hadn’t torn the entire meeting room and everyone in it to pieces.
Paragon had a room at the facility. It was small, but well-furnished, with a comfortable bed, a locker holding personal affects he didn’t recognise, a small library of books someone had obviously thought would be of interest to him, a television. A new uniform to replace the ones he’d worn on deployment hung up behind the door. It looked dazzling against the drab military decor. He sat on his bed, looking at a framed photograph someone had put on the bedside cabinet. It showed a middle-aged black woman with a young man in the uniform of a newly-minted member of the Marine Corps. They were both smiling happily. It looked like it had been taken on a sunny day. He didn’t recognise either of them.
There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” he said, putting the picture back down where he’d found it.
Goodman walked in and he stood up. “Sit down, sit down,” she said.
He inclined his head as he did as he was told. “Ms Goodman.”
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I feel…fine.” He did. He supposed. He didn’t really understand the question.
“I read the reports of your missions in the field. Apparently you exceeded all expectations.”
“Except my own, Ms Goodman.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You felt you could have done better?”
“I always hope to do better. You taught me that. The moment we stop striving to improve ourselves, the battle is already lost.”
“Ah yes. Very admirable. Although, there’s more to self-improvement than perfecting your combat skills.”
“Not for me. I’m a weapon.”
“No, you’re a man. A very special kind of man, but still a man, of flesh and blood.” She seemed about to add something to that, but instead she turned to the book shelf. “I know you’ve only been back for a little while, so I don’t expect you’ve had the chance to relax. I left these here for you. Some books from my own library at home. I don’t get the chance to leave this facility as much as I’d like…they’re hardly doing much good rotting away on my shelves back in Jefferson. I thought you might find them useful.” She turned back to him with one of the books in her hand. “I don’t know what sort of things you liked to read…before. That’s not the sort of thing that makes its way into military files.”
Paragon thought about it. “I don’t remember,” he admitted.
“Well, in my experience, marines don’t tend to be bookworms. But you have an incredible mind, Captain – I should know, I helped to design it.” She let out a hollow laugh at that. “It’d be a shame to waste it on violence,” she added, passing him the book.
Paragon looked at it blankly. “‘Beloved’,” he read out slowly.
“Yes. It’s…well…I think you’ll find it interesting. It’s about the slave trade, and its victims. And it’s about motherhood. And difficult choices. I don’t mean to sound patronising but, as a person of colour, I think it’s important that you connect with some of these issues. Particularly given who you’ve been brought back to stop.”
“I haven’t been given my mission yet,” he said, laying the book carefully on the bedside table. It felt strange to be back in such a calm, quiet environment. He felt like he’d just smash everything if he wasn’t very careful.
“Oh. Well, I wouldn’t want to pre-empt your briefing.”
“I don’t see how it would matter.” He had some strange thoughts running through his head then, ones he struggled to articulate. “It seems as if people keep a lot from me. Like they’re scared I’ll find out things I shouldn’t. But you…you’ve always been honest with me, Ms Goodman.”
“Not completely honest,” she said gently, “sometimes you have to tell small lies so the big truths can be understood later on.”
“I’m not sure I…”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Do you know who Iron Hand is?”
Paragon nodded. “He’s one of the transhuman terrorists held in the Containment Facility in upstate New Amsterdam, colloquially known as ‘The Tank’. He is an avowed neo-Nazi, who led a gang of transhumans with similar sensibilities – skinheads – on a reign of terror in New Amsterdam around a decade ago.”
“That’s right. But someone made a mistake, and they put him in a position to secure his freedom, which he promptly did. Promptly and bloodily, I should add. Mercifully, he’s now gone into hiding, it seems, but it won’t be long until he and his degenerates come boiling out of whatever sewer they’re hiding in and start killing more people. He’s a simple man: a thug with delusions of grandeur. He’s dangerous though. His powers have grown and developed since he was imprisoned. He may surpass even you.”
“I will stop him,” Paragon vowed. “This is the purpose for which I was created.”
“Indeed. I thought Hellhawk and his followers would be your first real test, but it seems fate has other plans for you. In a way, I’m glad it should be against vermin like Iron Hand.” She motioned for him to move up on the bed and then sat down next to him. “This is going to sound strange,” she told him, “but there was a reason I recommended you as one of the candidates for this process. For the Paragon Project, I mean. One I didn’t put in the reports.”
“Yes. You were supposed to be a symbol of freedom, you see. I thought it was important that you weren’t like everyone else the people of Columbia see defending their alleged freedom. I thought…well…I thought it was important that you not be white, Paragon. It sounds silly now, but I think maybe that strange decision will bear fruit. Iron Hand thinks you don’t belong here. He wants to exterminate your people.”
“I’m a transhuman, like him.”
“Yes, but racists aren’t known for their logic, Paragon. You’ll confuse him. In his mind, transhumanism is a realisation of the warped ideology of the Nazis – he uses the term ‘übermensch’ to describe himself. A literal translation, as it happens, but one with certain connotations that fit his skewed view of the world. When he meets the most powerful transhuman of all, and sees a black face looking at him from behind the mask…well…perhaps it’s just the edge you’ll need.”
Paragon looked down at his hands. “I don’t really know what it means to be black,” he said. “I don’t remember being anything before I was Paragon. The only heritage I have is here, in this facility. I have more in common with you than I do other African-Columbians.”
“That’s probably true. Luckily, I’ve always been told I had a sound head on my shoulders. Steven – sorry, General Pietersen, or Columbian Eagle, if you like – said I was the only thing that kept him under control during the War. God, the things we saw when we finally tracked down Iron Cross…I had to hold him back, you know. Physically restrain him, and that was no easy feat.” She chuckled to herself, evidently lost in her memories for a moment. “I had to hold myself back too,” she added in a quieter voice, “concentrating on him made it easier. I put him first, always. It was second nature, I suppose. By that time we were already…well…I won’t tell you about that….but it was different back then, of course. Women were expected to support men. When you get two transhumans together, it’s hard to make the world’s expectations fit your experiences. But anyway, I’m rambling now. You don’t want to hear this.”
“It’s fine,” Paragon said. “No one tells me these things.”
“I suppose they don’t,” Goodman said, putting a hand on his arm. “Just an old woman’s reminisces. I shouldn’t distract you before your mission. But,” she stood up and pointed at the book on the cabinet, “try to read that, if you can.”
“I will,” he promised.
“Good. I worry, you know.”
“About what, Ms Goodman?”
“That we did our job too well. That we made you too strong. Transhumans are supposed to be better than ordinary people, that’s what we always told ourselves.”
“All men are created equal.”
“Not you. You are beyond humanity. We both are. And that power is a terrible, terrible privilege. In you is the potential for the best our species has to offer, and the worst. That’s Iron Hand. A dark mirror of what we hoped to achieve in you. Don’t follow his path, Paragon. Be better. Be good.”
Paragon furrowed his brow deeply. He didn’t feel qualified to have these kinds of conversations. He wasn’t really sure what was expected of him. “I want to make you proud of me,” he said carefully. “I don’t know why.”
“I think it’s enough to think it for now, Paragon.” She went to leave, but then stopped at the door and turned back. “Iron Hand is a deeply unpleasant man,” she said, “he may have the potential to be a monster. But…but he is very like you. In more ways than you might realise now. I can’t tell you what I know, so you just have to trust me. If you care about freedom and justice, if you care about Columbia – really care, not care because you’ve been told since the day you were pulled from that tank that Columbia is your mistress and you were created to defend her, but care because there’s a part of you that remembers what it was to be noble and free and good, and understands that these are the ideals our nation stands for and, while we might not always adhere to them, sometimes it’s enough to make do with striving to uphold them in the face of a harsh and unfeeling world. If you feel all that, somewhere inside you, you must demonstrate your commitment to that. No matter your orders. He mustn’t die, Paragon. Despite his crimes, Iron Hand doesn’t deserve that.”
“I can’t guarantee he won’t, Ms Goodman,” Paragon answered honestly.
“I know. But you must hold yourself to a higher ideal, higher than the ideals of the men and women who created you.”
“Even you, Ms Goodman?”
“Even me, Paragon. My hands are stained too, I’m afraid. We’re all victims of a savage order, but you may be even more of a victim than the rest of us.”
Paragon frowned again. “I’ll try to keep all this in mind, Ms Goodman.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m making your life more complicated.”
“Don’t apologise. A complicated life is still a life. It’s more than I would have had otherwise, I think.”
“I suppose so.”
“Thank you for the books. I’ll try to find the time to read them.”
“I hope that you do. Goodnight, Paragon.”
“Goodnight, Ms Goodman.”
Iron Hand stood in the back room of a bar in a rough part of New Amsterdam. It belonged to the brother of one of the men he’d helped escape from jail yesterday and, for now, he was using it as a makeshift headquarters. Already elements of skinhead and white supremacist gangs were flocking to his banner, but he was more interested in the two individuals who now stood before him. “You got handles?” he asked them, pointing from one to the other.
They were brothers, clearly, possibly even twins. Tall, white, strong-looking. Both also shared another indefinable quality that it took someone like him to recognise. One of them said, “I’m Quake, this is Shock.”
“And your story?”
“We’re…uh…third generation, y’know? Had to register with the government, even though we ain’t exactly a threat.”
“Until now,” Iron Hand said.
“Yeah,” Shock grinned.
“Anyway,” Quake went on, “I guess we’re just tired of bein’ called freaks.”
“I know what that’s like, brothers. It’s tough when you know you’re better than everyone else, but they treat you like a damn second class citizen.”
“Yeah, exactly!” Shock said. Iron Hand judged him to be the less bright of the two, though neither of them were going to win any Ivy League scholarships any time soon.
Quake looked a little hesitant. “We…uh…we don’t got to…uh…”
“Got to what?”
He pointed at Iron Hand’s tattoos. “That stuff. Swastikas.”
“We ain’t racists,” Shock explained.
Iron Hand laughed. “Who’s a racist?” He spread his arms. His men were loitering around the room. Universally white, tattooed like him, wearing the same sort of clothes. As soon as he’d had the chance, he’d thrown his prison overalls in the trash and got hold of a tight-fitting white t-shirt, some decent jeans and some heavy black boots. He almost felt like a real person again. “You gotta understand, boys, this ain’t about ‘race’. This is about makin’ the world make sense. We got lots of kinds of people, right? All kinds of people, all livin’ in the same place, all gettin’ on each other’s nerves. That’s the problem. I ain’t wanna hurt anyone, unless I got to, right? Blacks an’ Jews an’ Latinos an’ whatever…far as I’m concerned, we can all live in peace. Just not together. It ain’t right.”
“Right,” Shock nodded, “I guess that’s okay.”
“It’s better’n okay,” Iron Hand said with a wolfish grin, “it’s the goddamn future. Now listen…” he beckoned the brothers over to one corner and leaned in close to them when they were out of earshot of the other men. “This is gonna sound a little weird, but do you guys have any sisters?”
They looked at one another. “No,” Shock answered. “Why?”
“Nothin’, just makin’ some plans. See, y’ know what I was sayin’ about natural orders an’ so on? Well, the thing is, people like us, we’re naturally superior. That’s indisputable, right? I mean, look at us, an’ look at them.” He jerked his head towards the others in the room. “We’re faster, stronger, smarter, we can do stuff they just ain’t understand. But I gotta think of the future. The Fourth Reich. See, we’re the übermensch, the born leaders of the new world order. We’re like gods, stridin’ across the Earth, remakin’ reality accordin’ to our wishes. It’s gonna be a glorious age. But it’s a big damn world, an’ the three of us ain’t gonna be able to bring it to heel on our own, right? In the comin’ wars, we need all the transhumans we can get. Now, there’s atomic chambers, an’ there’s other ways of doin’ things, but…well…sometimes old fashioned is best. A lotta transhumans are infertile, but some ain’t – like your folks, an’ their folks.”
Quake and Shock both nodded. That’s what they’d meant by third generation. Their grandparents had been changed by the T-Event. Most likely they’d never developed any powers of their own, but the mutation had been passed on to the next generation, and then the next. Transhumans bred true, more often than not.
“See, here’s how it’s gonna have to work, boys. I need transhuman women – überfrauen – to breed with my men, so they can be the fathers of the next generation of titans. An’ you,” he patted Shock on the cheek conspiratorially, “you boys get to get what you always wanted. See, you get the pick of the human women. Whoever you like. That girl who turned you down for your senior prom? The cute barista at the coffee house? All yours. You just gotta reach out an’ take ’em.” He clenched his fist in front of them. “That’s what bein’ an übermensch is all about. The world ain’t tell you what to do: you tell the world what to do!”
He could see the fire being kindled in their eyes as he spoke. For men like this, it only took a few promises of that kind, and he’d have them forever. He knew their story all too well: years of pent-up-aggression, years of knowing you were better than everyone around you, but being forbidden to just be your natural self. It was wrong. But this pathetic society of mewling slaves would never see it that way. That’s why they needed to be crushed beneath his boot. They needed to be beaten and herded together like animals, and a new order imposed. It would be painful and bloody but, in the end, they’d thank him. He clapped his new henchmen on the shoulders. “We only got a few transhumans so far, but more are gonna come, I’m sure of it. An’ then…”
“Hey, boss!” someone called from the door.
Iron Hand straightened. “What?”
It was one of his human followers, a man whose name he couldn’t remember at the moment. “I think our cover got blown – I can hear sirens outside!”
“That ain’t a problem. C’mon, gentlemen, time to show me what you can do.”
Quake and Shock looked hesitant. “Uh…” Quake began.
“What? You thought it was all talkin’? You gotta prove your worth.”
“We don’t wanna get in trouble,” Shock mumbled.
“Trouble?” Iron Hand rounded on them. “Trouble?! These insects are nothing!” He pounded his chest with his fist. “We are the übermenschen! There’s nothing they can do to hurt us! Let them come! Let them try to contain us! I welcome their retaliation against us! They shall serve as an example to the rest. And to all of you.” He pointed around the room. “You all saw what I did back in the prison. Let me show you what your transhuman masters are capable of at the height of their fury. And think of the power your sons will wield!”
He stalked out of the back room, confident Quake and Shock would follow. There were indeed police outside: the blue and red lights were reflecting off the back wall as they shone through the gaps in the blinds of the bar’s windows. Iron Hand paused for a moment, deciding on a course of action. He strode towards the bar and stood, framed by a confederate flag on the wall behind him. “Quake – what can you do?”
“I can…uh…I can make stuff…well…”
Iron Hand pointed. “Can you blow the glass out of the windows?”
“So fuckin’ do it!”
Quake set his legs slightly apart, the held his fists in front of him. He closed his eyes, and Iron Hand could feel the ripples of energy in the air around him. He felt like he could almost see them if he squinted hard enough. Quake’s whole body began to tremble, and the veins on his neck and forehead were standing out. Shock stood well back, looking uncomfortable. Iron Hand wondered how in-synch the two mutants were. The floor started to vibrate. A chair banged against the floorboards. On the bar behind him, a bottle of whisky exploded. Iron Hand didn’t even jump. His whole attention was focused on the windows on the opposite side of the room. He could hear the frames rattling and then, suddenly, the glass exploded outwards, eliciting cries from outside. Evidently the police had been trying to sneak up on them.
“Impressive,” Iron Hand told Quake. It wasn’t, actually – transhumans these two might be, but they weren’t powerful ones. He’d seen people do far more amazing things than break a couple of windows. “Shock, what can you do?”
Shock took a faltering step forward, looked embarrassed and then said, “This…” He held out a hand, and a bolt of lightning leapt from it, searing through the blinds and causing the cop car parked outside to erupt in flames.
“Very impressive,” Iron Hand breathed, and this time he meant it.
“Gonna take me a little while to recharge though,” Shock mumbled. He seemed to do that a lot. “While since I done it. It ain’t normally so powerful.”
“It builds up,” Quake explained.
“It sure does, boys,” Iron Hand said, “ain’t do no good at all to keep that stuff bottled in. But stay back for now – I can handle the rest.” He stalked towards the charred remains of the window and leapt up onto the smoking frame. Outside, the cops were keeping their heads down. Another car that had been parked next to the one Shock destroyed had caught fire too. “That,” he bellowed at them, “was just a taste of what you got in store for you!”
“We have the whole building surrounded!” someone dared to shout through a megaphone.
“So…put down any weapons you have and put your hands in the air!”
Iron Hand stepped down onto the sidewalk. Glass crunched under his boots. The air reeked of smoke. Slowly, he raised his hands. “Not a problem, officer, except…well…my hands are my weapons…” One idiot police officer actually seemed to think the situation was diffused and started to creep out of his hiding place behind a dumpster, but his partner had the good sense to pull him back down. “You want to threaten me?” Iron Hand called out, placing his hands on his head and slowly going down to his knees in the road next to the burning car. “You want to make demands of Iron Hand? I should be the one giving the orders!”
“Just stay there,” the megaphone said.
“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Iron Hand sneered. “You have me at your mercy, officers! Come and make your arrest!”
No one moved. He could feel the gun sights trained on him. Some of them would know what he was capable of. Some may even remember his reign of terror themselves. He smiled at an older cop peeking over the hood of his car. “Come on!” he roared.
Finally, the one with the megaphone showed himself. A lieutenant, probably. He had the megaphone to one side and was speaking into his radio. Iron Hand couldn’t hear him, but he guessed he was probably calling for backup. The man moved towards him very slowly. He didn’t have a gun, just a hand held out. “Now, there’s no need for anyone to…”
“I’m bored of this now.” He stood up. Immediately someone with an itchy trigger finger took a shot. He stepped smoothly to one side, letting the bullet ricochet harmlessly off the asphalt he’d been standing on a split second earlier. “Anyone else wanna try? The ones I don’t dodge I’ll catch right outta the damn air.”
The lieutenant had his gun up now, pointed right at him. “Backup’s on the way, we don’t have to…”
“Shut up.” He pushed himself into the air and landed just a couple of feet from the police officer. More gunshots rang out, but he didn’t even have to watch where they came from, he just sidestepped faster than their eyes could follow. One did hit him – the bullet buried itself in his side, and made him grunt under his breath. He’d dig it out with a knife later. He reached out and grabbed the lieutenant around the throat, then lifted him off the ground. The man tried to fire his gun, so Iron Hand threw him at the store on the other side of the street and he crashed through the window, leaving broken, bloody glass in his wake. They police were in uproar now, shooting, shouting, but concentrating all their attention on him. That’s when his men spilled out of the bar en masse. Ordinary humans they might have been, but they were big, strong and angry, and the cops weren’t ready. He stepped towards a squad car and bent down to get a grip on the underside. With an almost nonchalant movement, he heaved it up in the air and sent it rolling onto its back. Then he backhanded a cop across the face, causing his skull to explode in a bloody fountain of gore. The fight raged around him as he moved on, further up the street where the promised backup was arriving – more cars and at least one SWAT van. He killed as he advanced, tearing holes in men’s bodies, pulping heads, ripping out spinal columns. In minutes his white shirt was soaked with blood. He howled with rage and joy, unloading a decade of repressed fury in a handful of gore-choked minutes. Just like Shock, he’d had a lot bottled up. Now was his time though. And this was just the beginning.
The SWAT team charged. The first officer had a riot shield up and Iron Hand punched straight through it and tore his head right off his shoulders. A baton broke on his back and he lifted a man in the air and hurled him into the path of an approaching car.
Then he stopped. Because he could feel something. Something new. His men were fighting their way towards him, but he was an oasis of calm in the bloody maelstrom as he looked up. He was standing at an intersection and there, high up on the corner of the next block, perched like an eagle looking down on the city, was someone.
“Who is that?” he demanded of no one in particular. He already knew the answer, at least in part. It was someone worthy. It was a fellow titan. And this one, not the SWAT, was the real backup.
The street below was in total chaos. The police were badly outmatched. No one had had to deal with a transhuman for years, and evidently they hadn’t been properly briefed. Most of the specialist equipment was based at The Tank, in case of a breakout – that had had happened once, memorably, a few years ago, but the cell had not been built that could hold Black Fury, of course – and everyone had assumed Iron Hand wasn’t a threat. Paragon didn’t understand exactly why that was. General Hepburn hadn’t explained it in his briefing. He’d just said that someone had made a mistake and he’d ended up in an ordinary prison. It seemed a bizarre and costly mistake to make. But that didn’t matter now. He had a mission.
“I can see you!” Iron Hand shouted up from the street. He walked out into the middle of the intersection, his arms held out, challenging him, daring him to come down.
Paragon actually hesitated for a moment. This was what he had been created for, but he could sense Iron Hand’s power. He was not his equal in terms of raw strength or speed, but Paragon had only had a few months to acquaint himself with his own abilities. Iron Hand was older than he looked: a veteran warrior, who knew very well what he was capable of. “FIGHT ME!” Iron Hand roared.
Paragon felt a spark of anger. Something deep-seated stirred inside him. In all his engagements overseas, he’d never really felt angry. He wasn’t sure whether he liked it. He stepped off the edge of the building and plummeted to earth, his cape streaming out behind him. He turned as he hurtled towards the ground so that he landed fist-first, head bowed. As he hit the road, a crack snaked along the asphalt beneath him, and the ground buckled in a perfect circle around him. It was a neat trick, but Iron Hand seemed unmoved by it. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Don’t you watch the news?” Paragon asked as he rose to his feet.
“No TV in The Tank,” Iron Hand said, holding out his arms again. “Just hours an’ hours spent in solitary. They ain’t like us to know much about the outside world.”
“Then let me fill you in on what you’ve missed: I’m Captain Paragon.”
They circled each other slowly. “Okay…” Iron Hand said. “You wanna explain what that means? Because, last I checked, transhumans ain’t allowed to run around in capes an’ masks no more.”
“I’m the exception.”
“Are you now?”
“Yes. I’m here on behalf of the nation of Columbia.”
Iron Hand roared with laughter. “Really? That’s who you are? The new Columbian Eagle?”
“I’m Captain Paragon. And you’re under arrest.”
“Am I? How interestin’. I ain’t exactly the expert – not any more – but don’t you got to apprehend a criminal before you make the arrest?”
“I was just giving you the chance to surrender now.”
“Heh…do you need me to dignify that with a response?”
Paragon took a step towards Iron Hand. “There’s no need for any more violence.”
“Is that what you want? For me to come quietly?”
No. But he didn’t say it out loud. Instead he stood there, poised, waiting to be given an excuse to strike. He didn’t need to wait long: Iron Hand leapt at him, moving through the air in a long, gravity-defying bound. They crashed into one another, and Iron Hand spun him around and hurled him to the floor. His cape wrapped around him as he rolled away, but he untangled himself as he stood up, only to get a hard right hand to the jaw for his trouble. He stumbled to one side. In all the few months of life he could remember clearly, that was the most pain he’d ever felt.
Iron Hand was shaking his hand, working his wrist with a wince. “Quite a jaw on you, Cap’. What’s your story anyway? You natural, or did they whip you up in a lab like me?”
Paragon didn’t reply, he just swung for Iron Hand with a roar. He caught him across the temple, and the impact sent the other transhuman cartwheeling through the air, to land on his side in the road. The asphalt buckled from the impact. “I was sent to apprehend you, not kill you,” Paragon breathed, stalking towards his foe.
Iron Hand got up to one knee. “You think I’m gonna let you make that choice? C’mon, talk to me. Who were you before you got that mask? I never seen you before, or heard of you, an’ someone as powerful as you oughta have at least been on my radar.”
Iron Hand was backing away down the road. A police cordon was going up at the intersection. The fighting was still going on around the bar where Iron Hand had been hiding out, but more police were on the way. It would soon be pacified. Iron Hand, they were leaving to him. “You’re, what? Thirty?” Iron Hand went on, “Where’ve you been all this time? I was at large ten years ago. Where were you then, huh? We coulda used someone like you…”
“You could have used me?”
“Why is everyone so hung up on race? You think it bothers me that my country is apparently bein’ represented by a nigger? Okay, it does bother me, but there ain’t no reason you an’ I can’t coexist. In fact, you oughta join me.”
“Why would I do that?” They were halfway down the next block now, and another police cordon was going up at the next intersection. It wouldn’t hold if Iron Hand charged it, but it marked out his battlefield for him. He had to contain this man.
“You’re transhuman. Like me. We got way more in common with each other then we do with any of these weaklings. I can look past the colour of your skin. My dear ol’ dad worked with Rising Sun an’ Divine Wind back in the War, after all. We’re gods. They’re ants. Why you workin’ for ’em?”
“They’re my people.”
“No they ain’t. They’re as white as me. They hold your people down. You might not like this tattoo,” he pointed to the swastika on his arm, “but there’s one like it on every politician in Jefferson DA, you just can’t see ’em cause’ they’re more’n skin deep. At least I’m honest about my beliefs.”
“You’re a Nazi thug.”
“If I am, so are you. But at least I make my own destiny.”
“My destiny is Columbia’s destiny.”
Now it was Paragon’s turn to charge. He threw himself at Iron Hand, but the other man was quicker and he stepped out of the way, causing Paragon to falter. Then he drove his fists into his back and knocked him down to the ground. “We ain’t gotta fight, Captain,” Iron Hand said as he hauled him to his feet by his cape. “Join me!”
“Never!” He swung at him, but Iron hand caught his fist in the air and then kicked him in the gut. Paragon felt his shoulder wrench and he bit off a howl of pain. He was trying to get his bearings again, when he felt himself lifted off the ground. He tried to fight back, but Iron Hand tossed him against the wall of a building with a grunt of exertion. The brickwork cracked, and Paragon felt cement dust falling on him as he slumped down to the sidewalk. Iron Hand called his name from across the road. “You’re tough, Captain Paragon, but I think you ain’t had the necessary experience to make the best a’ what you got. I got a theory: I ain’t think you were born, I think you were made. Not even like me, either. I figure you used to be normal. Like them.” He pointed at the police cordon down the road. “But somehow they made you transhuman. I didn’t think even an atomic chamber could do that but, hey, I been in solitary for ten years – what do I know? Anyway,” he bent over, pausing to get his breath back, “why don’t you catch me if you can?” He turned and leapt up into the air, landing on a first-story window ledge, gripping onto it like a spider. Then he jumped again, moving up the building floor by floor, window by window, until he was just a white dot, climbing out of sight.
Paragon picked himself up slowly and crossed the street. The police officers behind the barriers were all watching him. Despite the distance, he could see how wide their eyes were. If he couldn’t stop Iron Hand, more drastic measures were going to be required, and no one wanted to relive the horror of trying to stop the transhuman terrorists who had attacked New Amsterdam in 2001. He craned his neck upwards. He could just make out Iron Hand near the top of the building. It was an old apartment block; solid, federal brickwork with a flat roof. All the residents had been evacuated already. Still, it wasn’t exactly ideal. “I can’t climb like that,” he said to himself, “but then, I don’t really need to…”
He bent his legs slightly and, with a flex of some muscle deep inside him that he didn’t really understand, he launched himself skyward. He careened up the side of the building, cape streaming again, gradually picking up speed, seeing the crawling shape of Iron Hand getting larger and larger. Too late his quarry noticed him, turning with a shocked expression just as Paragon grabbed hold of him and carried him up into the air. Once they crested the building’s roof, Paragon threw him down and alighted shakily off to one side.
“Flight?!” Iron Hand roared as he spun up to his feet. “No one has been able to do that since the War!”
Paragon was breathing hard as he stepped down from the parapet running around the edge of the roof. “Times are changing.”
“Who are you?” Iron Hand demanded. “How’d they do it, huh? Whose blood you got in you?”
“That’s not important.” Paragon held his side. He had a stitch. It was deeply unsettling.
“Takes it out of you, huh?” Iron Hand asked. “Stuff like that always does; the flashy tricks. You shoulda seen the two kids I just met. One could barely break a pane of glass without havin’ a fuckin’ brain aneurism, an’ the other got off one bolt a’ lightin’ an’ looked like he wanted to roll over an’ go to sleep. But you…you’re somethin’ else entirely…”
“We don’t have to do this,” Paragon said. “Come quietly. I could’ve dropped you to the street.”
“Maybe. But you’re right that we don’t have to do this. Join me.”
“I already told you I won’t.”
“Why not? What do you owe these people? They gave you powers, so what?”
“They created me.”
“Bullshit. I thought that once, but no one asks to be born. They ain’t done nothin’ to earn your loyalty.”
“They don’t have to earn it!” Paragon roared.
“I was like you once, you know,” Iron Hand said, almost conversationally. A few spots of rain were falling from the leaden sky. It had been threatening all day.
“No. No one is like me.”
“I was. More like you than you know. You know why I call Iron Cross my father?”
Paragon thought about it. There was no way this man could actually be Iron Cross’s biological son. He’d been frozen for over seventy years and, besides, he was one of the most heavily irradiated transhumans of all – he’d be infertile. “No,” Paragon admitted, “I don’t.”
“Because he is. I was created with his DNA. They had to make a few tweaks so it worked properly, of course. But you know our government: real ingenious folks.”
“I don’t understand…”
“No, I bet you don’t. I got no idea where you came from, but maybe you oughta ask your superiors in whatever base they lock you up in at night to do less brainwashin’ an’ more actual educatin’. I was you, Captain Paragon!” He beat a hand against his chest. “They made me to be the transhuman deterrent against Black Fury, The Bear and all the rest of ’em. They cloned me from their most hated enemy an’ raised me to be a weapon a’ mass destruction. Sound familiar?”
Paragon tried to order his thoughts. No one had told him this. He wasn’t ready for it. “Who were you?”
“They called me Justice.” He snorted derisively. “Some Justice. Raised in a lab, brainwashed to be loyal, given a mask an’ sent out to fight men I didn’t know nothin’ about. They just pointed me at ’em an’ said: ‘these are the bad guys; kill, dog.'”
“I found out where I came from. An’ I realised the ones holdin’ the leash were more scared of me than I was of them. So I broke free, an’ now here we are. A rabid dog an’ the loyal hound.” He threw his arms wide. “You gonna be their nigger your whole life, Paragon? You might not like what I stand for, but you gotta admit it’s better’n what they stand for, right?”
“What they stand for…” Paragon murmured. What did his creators stand for? They’d made this man, and they’d made him. For what? To fight and kill. To go where they were sent, to destroy nameless men. He’d never met Hellhawk. They hadn’t told him Iron Hand’s story – what were they hiding about him?
“Break free,” Iron Hand hissed, walking towards him with his fist held out. “Fuck them an’ their cause! You could be a titan! You could be übermensch! Together, we’ll rule these fuckin’ insects! We’re stronger, faster, better.”
“Better…” Paragon whispered.
He looked up at Iron Hand. Saw the blood staining his shirt. Saw the tattoos he bore – the hateful symbols of a regime destroyed by the very people who had created him. Goodman – Columbian Woman – had stood against exactly this kind of tyranny. “And what then?” Paragon asked. “If I join you, what then?”
“We sweep them all aside! It’s our destiny!”
“More blood. More death.”
“We were made to kill!”
“And you claim to have broken free,” Paragon snorted. He barrelled into Iron Hand, bearing him down to the ground. The rain was coming down harder now, and puddles were forming across the old flat roof with its poor drainage. They rolled back and forth, each struggling for dominance over the other. Iron Hand clambered on top and drove his fist into Paragon’s face over and over, leaving him bloody and disorientated. But Paragon got a foot underneath him and flipped him over onto his back. He scrambled up, nearly getting tangled in his cape, only to find Iron Hand was already on his feet. The blonde man delivered a vicious kick to the head that sent Paragon staggering backwards, bright flashes clouding his vision.
“I take back everything I said!” Iron Hand screamed. “You’re an ant too! It’s not about what you are, it’s about what’s in your head! You’re still a slave inside! That’s why they don’t give niggers capes!”
Paragon hurled himself back towards Iron Fist, clasping his hands together and delivering a double-handed blow to the stomach that lifted him off his feet. Iron Hand crashed to the floor and Paragon lifted his foot to stomp him down, but Iron Hand turned over on his back and grabbed his boot. He twisted, jerking Paragon off his feet and pulling him down to the ground where he threw furious blows at him, pummelling him from head to toe. Paragon clawed out, raking Iron Hand’s eyes and then grabbing him around the throat. Iron Hand scrabbled at Paragon’s gloved hands, but was unable to get a grip.
“Do it!” Iron Hand croaked. “Show your loyalty, dog!”
Paragon threw him away with a bellow of rage and climbed slowly to his feet. “You’re coming with me,” he said between laboured breaths.
“No,” Iron Hand replied, getting up to his hands and knees and massaging his bruised throat. “I’m not going back to the cage. Never. Only one of us is leaving this rooftop.”
“I don’t want to kill you.”
Iron Hand was up on his knees now. The rain was coming down hard, soaking his bloody shirt to his skin. He laughed. “I can’t beat you. You can’t beat me. We’re evenly matched. We’ll fight and we’ll fight, and eventually one of us will die. That’s what it comes down to.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
“Of course it does! What, you’ll let me go free? I just killed a dozen people. Besides…” he rested a finger on his forearm, where the swastika was indelibly inked into his flesh. “I don’t belong in your society. I’m the monster, they say. Me: the one who was used from the day he was born. The one who was told every day, since he was old enough to understand it, that he was a weapon for Columbia. What would you do if you found out you were born from evil? What would it do to your head, Captain Paragon?” He spat the name.
“I know where I came from,” Paragon said, limping towards the kneeling Iron Hand. He thought he might have twisted his ankle.
“Do you? Or do you only know what you’ve been told? Who did they make you to fight, Paragon? Who is your enemy?”
His step faltered. “I…”
“Do you even know? Do you even care? Are you even capable of that? I’ve got to hand it to the pricks who did this to us: they’ve gotten better. They’ve perfected their alchemy with you, Paragon. Your loyalty is stronger than mine ever was. Whatever they did to your head, it even stopped you asking questions.”
“I was created to serve,” Paragon said.
“Yes, you were. And they told you you were better, I’m sure. The same thing they told me. But it’s all a lie. We’re freaks and mutants and, as long as we let them leash us with licenses and code names and, yes, masks and capes, we’ll never be anything but slaves. They call us ‘transhumans’, but we’re actually the opposite of that, at least in their eyes. But I wonder what they did to make you so unswervingly loyal? They must have told you all the same shit they told me, given you the same training. Why don’t you ask questions? What are you doing with that super-powered brain of yours? Maybe they found something else to leash you with. Maybe they told you you were fighting for something bigger than yourself. Maybe they picked a black man to make some kind of point about the way they oppress us. Maybe they fooled you into thinking there was one person in this world who gives a shit whether you live or die, Paragon. Is that it? Did they try to make you proud of being what you are? Who did they send?”
Paragon laid a hand against Iron Hand’s shoulder. “You’re coming with me,” he said hoarsely.
“They lied, Paragon,” Iron Hand whispered, “they lied to you and they lied to me. Columbia will chew you up and spit you into the dirt to die. That’s what they do. They did it to your ancestors, and now they’ve raised you up to carry their flag, but every time you strike blows in their name, you’re fighting for that exact same oppression. You’re just a tool. So know this:” He looked up at Paragon then. His face was bruised and battered, but his brilliant blue eyes stood out from his bloodied, dirty skin. The rain was pouring down and rivulets streaked his cheeks. “Whoever they sent, and whatever they told you, it was all lies. It was all a trick to stop you doing what I did, becoming what I became. They don’t care about you. No one cares about you. You’re just a slave and, if you die, they’ll just make a new Captain Paragon. You’re nothing to them. The people who created you are evil cunts and the one who told you you were worth something? They’re the worst cunt of all.”
Paragon didn’t recall making a decision. His hands moved in a blur, taking a grip of Iron Hand’s head on either side and, with a twist of his arms, he snapped his neck in two. The man sank lifelessly to the ground.
“Paragon? Paragon?” There was a voice in his ear. How long had it been talking?
He pressed the radio bead. “This is Captain Paragon,” he said in a toneless voice.
“Paragon…” General Hepburn sounded relieved. “What the hell’s going on? Where’s Iron Hand.”
“Target has been neutralised. Repeat, target has been neutralised.”
Paragon looked down at Iron Hand’s corpse. His head had been turned nearly one-hundred-and-eighty-degrees and his blue eyes stared lifelessly up at the grey sky as the rain continued to pour down. “Permanently,” Paragon said.