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NEW FICTION: NYSS: post nine-eleven (Chapter 1)

June 27, 2002

As the summer kicks into gear I find myself moving in a variety of directions, working on the post-production end of ALTERCATIONS vol. 1, developing a series of cartoons that may or may not see publication, entertaining my niece (hi Rachel!) who visited Philadelphia for a week in June, and writing on the story that begins this week.

There were many reasons I felt the need to write this story. Mainly, I feel that in the aftermath of the WTC attacks, if there really were super-heroes and super-villains, their lives would have dramatically changed following 9-11. I think that, for a comic book publisher to acknowledge 9-11 in its publications, to place their heroes in the "real world" but to ultimately return them to the pre 9-11 comic book status quo diminishes the escapist aspect of the art form as a whole. What merit do the rantings of a Dr. Doom or Red Skull versus hold against the real-life attacks on our nation by ordinary men? The comic book universes that exist in mainstream comic books are PRETEND worlds. Why, then, throw those PRETEND characters into real-world situations and subsequently return the storytelling to its pre-9-11 status quo? I don't think things would have returned to "normal" for these individuals. If so-called super-humans did exist, I believe the world would forever look upon them a bit differently. Perhaps that is what NYSS: post nine-eleven is about. Or perhaps it's merely a means for me to work through my own feelings of the September 11 attacks. It is speculative fiction and hopefully the story I'm about to tell is entertaining on some level. It was not written to be "entertainment" in the purest sense of the word, but merely a commentary on the way things might be in an alternate reality such as the one in which the members of NYSS exist.

NYSS: post nine-eleven

The Blood of the Nails
It’s been 45 days. Forty-five days since the last, and worst, killing. I can still smell the blood beneath my fingernails. One-and-a-half months and I’m still shaky. I jump when a door is slammed. My blood freezes when the evening news tells of murders here and abroad. I used to be so tough. So confident—arrogant. So naïve.

No longer.

I suppose I’m writing these words to serve as a means of purging myself from the guilt. I don’t know whether it will, but that’s the intention. I know there is no blood beneath my nails. I know that I’m only smelling the memory of blood—but it’s strong. Forty-five days later it’s so very strong. This story begins longer than 45 days ago. It begins in 2001 on a sleepy Tuesday morning in late summer, a day that would transform America.

Something I might want to mention about myself--Not many years ago I was a student at the Pratt Institute in New York. A petite, 17-year-old girl with short, blonde hair, a face covered with freckles on a tiny frame. I was just a typical kid who liked to paint and had dreams of exhibits at major New York and Los Angeles galleries. Then it was discovered I could kill and mutilate with my mind, during which point my world forever changed. I mention these facts only because of their relevance to this story. Shortly after this “talent” was realized, I was recruited into the New York Super-Hero Syndicate (NYSS)—the official indoctrination occurred on my 18th birthday, April 29, 1995. My codename was Brain Blaster—I chose it myself, modest as ever. As a member of NYSS I intervened in matters of weirdness and unexplained phenomena that occurred in the city (such as the 1997 march of the dead in Central Park West, and the Conan-Doyle supernatural ricochet time-displacement incident in midtown, summer 1999). We defended the city from strangers with weird “powers” against whom ordinary law enforcers were powerless. There was no “super threat” we could not circumvent, no costumed menace we could not overpower. Yet none of the power-hungry latex-wearing lunatics we’d faced could compare with the evil of a few ordinary men whose suicidal actions cast a darkness upon the new millennium and upon this great city.
And no matter how intensified everyday security had become since 9-11, regardless of luggage searches at airports, background investigations at DMVs, criminal checks of suspected terrorists, covert surveillance from white vans, wire taps in hotel rooms, hidden cameras in restroom ceilings, and a myriad of other espionage devices, there were simply too many people, too many cities, and far too much acreage of land to successfully detect all terrorist acts before they arose.

For the NYSS rank and file, 9-11 had been more catastrophic than anything we’d ever seen with the possible exception of the so-called “battle for Seattle” years earlier. We continued to wear proudly the pre-9-11 emblem of the New York skyline on our combat jackets, but 9-11 had clearly altered the team’s functionality to an extent. Our transports, a pair of 1962 Galaxie 500s that had been refurbished with supersonic jet engines for flight, were ordered grounded by the FAA for the first six months following the WTC attacks. Even after the air restriction was lifted, only a handful of NYSS personnel were permitted to navigate the crafts, which had been modified to function by DNA identification software.

The Atomic Hawk
9-11 also changed the role of the “super-villain” in New York. Many simply abandoned their colorful costumes to pursue less risky criminal ventures, influenced, no doubt, by the events that occurred at the 54th Street Social Club on 12 September, 2001.

At approximately 1:33 a.m. September 12, witnesses report that Haley Cort, dressed in his notorious Atomic Hawk attire, entered the 54th Street establishment by crashing through a skylight above the bar. Amid the shock and panic of the patrons, Atomic Hawk announced his intentions to “rob the place” and to “kill anyone who tries to stop” him. The Atomic Hawk’s arsenal of weapons included portable nuclear-powered shells, any of which could have leveled the entire city block. Hawk, however, was caught unawares, taken by surprise by the club’s owner, 48-year-old Murray Lowenstein, who bludgeoned the would-be criminal in the back of the head with a baseball bat into which had been hammered more than 250 nails (none of which were quite flush with the surface of the bat). The blow felled Hawk momentarily, though he was able to counterattack Lowenstein (who would eventually suffer two broken legs, four cracked ribs, and a punctured lung). Hawk’s attack on the barkeep was cut short, however, when more than a dozen of the establishment’s patrons rallied an assault wielding fists, bottles, glasses, and knives. When police arrived at 1:49 a.m., the Atomic Hawk was dead. The story of the Hawks’ demise was highly publicized. Lowenstein and his customers were hailed as heroes, a label they were quick to deny. But the impact their heroics had upon the super-criminal element was impressive to say the least.

Changes Abound
The lives of NYSS personnel changed considerably in the weeks following 9-11. NYSS security was tightened. Its own roster was scrutinized closely, but its membership was tight. The level of trust and security beholden to NYSS staff was equivalent to the secret service agents who protect the President with their lives.

With the super-criminal element in retreat and all but gone, questions were soon raised as to the need for a state-funded group of super “heroes.” Various members of the press accused NYSS of “allowing” the WTC attacks to occur. In a Larry King telephone poll, 59% of respondents indicated a “reluctance” to support NYSS through state funding. In 2000 our roster had been cut by 25%--from 24 full-time employees (FTEs) to 18. NYSS’ contract with the city of New York forbade the city from reducing our numbers to fewer than 18 active members. (In 1996, during the “super-villain summer crime wave,” NYSS’ ranks had swelled to nearly 40 FTEs.) Now, however, there were 18, and because of our unique powers we were delegated to various assignments—an act that, due to a clause in our contracts, we could not contest.

Operatives such as Faceless and the Carnival Chameleon (both of whom were masters of disguise) were recruited by the CIA and used in deep surveillance operations of known and suspected terrorist groups. Others, including Venene, Lucky-luck, and the Short-Order Kill Cook were “loaned” to local FBI, DEA, and ATF factions while NYSS’ most deadly operative, Thermonuclear Warhead (TW), was kept under close guard. Because of the raw destructive power at his disposal—a thermo-nuclear missile fashioned atop his head, launchable via a mental command—TW was under strict orders not to leave NYSS headquarters. Fearing he would be the target of kidnappers who could force TW to launch his nuclear weaponry against the city, the crime fighter found himself under constant surveillance by FBI personnel.
Thus, with half of its 18 FTEs involved in special operations or limited in their capacity to function, our available staff was reduced to nine, which equated to three members on call during each 8-hour rotation. All was quiet. But in the next several weeks, events transpired that would change everything.

The Super-Villain Witch Hunt
In October, as America began to awake from the nightmare of 9-11, as the country found its armies thrust into foreign soils to hunt a diabolical, elusive enemy, several NYSS personnel began a hunt of their own and went after whomever they could find.
Yet finding a target was not always easy. Many of the pursued had either retired or had not conducted criminal activities since the death of the Atomic Hawk. Despite the best efforts of the NYSS personnel involved in this covert activity, the “Super-Villain Witch Hunt” eventually became public knowledge when a videotape shot by Oscar McGuire was sold to the Independent News Network.
McGuire, a 43-year-old software consultant, was a chronic insomniac. It was not atypical for him to sleep as few as 2 or 3 hours per night. He was also an amateur filmmaker whose short films had won not a single award nor been aired publicly but to a few select friends. He’d been in his third-story apartment on East 47th filming a monologue with a hand-held camcorder when, at 3:19 a.m., he heard a ruckus originating from the building’s rooftop. McGuire ascended the stairwell to the roof and quietly opened the door. He kept his camcorder with him, the device set to “record” mode the entire time. Despite the hour there was sufficient light from street lamps that enabled him to capture on tape what he saw with his eyes:
He recognized the red, white, and blue jackets and the NYSS logos instantly. Three operatives (two male, one female) were present as was an unidentified man (later identified as Edward Thorndike) wearing only a t-shirt and blue-striped boxer shorts. The microphone on McGuire’s camcorder recorded the quartet of voices.
“I haven’t done anything,” the man in boxers protested.
“Have you or have you not committed crimes under the codename Serpentine?” one of the NYSS operatives asked.
“Once, but that was a long time ago. I—”
The female asked, “As the Serpentine did you not conduct acts of violence consisting of those outlined in the 1999 Super-Villain doctrine?”*
“I’ve never seen that document. I have a job now—I’m a salesman, not a super-criminal.”
“I think we’d like to believe that, Edward. But you’re a threat that cannot be tolerated,” the third operative said plainly.
The three cornered Thorndike like hungry animals and in a matter of minutes beat him to death. The horrible incident was all recorded by McGuire, who remained hidden in shadow until the NYSS operatives left the rooftop. When the INN aired the story and video there was little public outcry. The story appeared in print and on the air on October 11, exactly 1 month following the WTC attacks. Little wonder a nation in mourning cared not for the life of Edward Thorndike, an aging car salesman who, for a period of 2 months in 1993, had worn a black and yellow spandex costume and had called himself The Serpentine. If anything, the media coverage of Thorndike’s murder served to further warn others like him that the time had come to run and hide.

Incident in Atlanta
Four days after the murder of Thorndike was aired, a quiet afternoon at the First Bank of Atlanta became less than quiet when, at 3:09 p.m., a customer approached teller window number 3 and extended his right hand in the direction of the teller who stood opposite the marble separator.
“May I help you?” the teller asked. The tips of the customer’s fingers changed from soft pink to deep blue in seconds; a transformation not unfamiliar to the teller.
“Cold Fire,” the teller whispered as chilled, blue energy pulsated from the stranger’s fingertips in angry streams. The bolts reflected off the teller, striking instead several customers and a security guard, each of whom fell lifelessly to the floor. The man called Cold Fire stood staring at the teller who smiled a wafer-thin smile.
“Idiot,” the teller said, and leapt with cheetah speed across the patrician and emerged behind his would-be assassin. A diamond-hard fist crashed into the small of Cold Fire’s back. “I don’t know how you found me, but I’m not shocked. I’ve become a bit ultra-paranoid since that poor bastard who used to be Serpentine was assassinated by the NYSS. I’m sure you would have preferred to take me by surprise. So sorry.”
As Cold Fire struggled, a boot connected with his face, sending him quickly to the floor.
“I guess it’s true that you goody-goodies are gunning for all of us, no matter how small we were or how long it’s been since we’ve been in the water. That kind of pisses me off.”
As he spoke, the teller--whose name was Charlie Green and who once committed crimes as the masked offender Green Thumb--continued to physically assault Cold Fire, who was an operative with the Atlanta Super Squad. Green’s blows were well executed and occurred in rapid succession. He took hold of Cold Fire’s hands and broke each finger of each hand in 9.5 seconds.
“If you’re going to hunt us like dogs, be warned: we’re going to bite back. I wonder, have you asked yourself this question: What happens when you’ve succeeded in your quest? Who will you hunt then? Perhaps…yourselves? How long before you’re the threat?”

Six days later Cold Fire awoke in the Atlanta Memorial Hospital, his body in traction. Green had broken sixty-three of the super-hero’s bones. To his left on the windowsill was a vase containing a bouquet of freshly cut flowers. A note in the vase read, “We’re not the enemy,” and nothing more.

NEXT: NYSS: post nine-eleven continues.

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