One – Alastair Marshall
Alastair Marshall looks like a caricature of a cowboy from a twentieth century film, except that somehow he makes it look genuine. With his rugged good looks and relaxed posture, he could make a living as an advert for the old frontier.
He stands - in worn jeans, a loose checked shirt and a battered hat - by the side of the small farmstead where he now lives. As he walks slowly along the perimeter of his property, he occasionally stoops to pluck a blade of long pale grass which he shreds fitfully during our interview. He never looks up at the sky, not even once.
‘You know, it’s all the fault of all those fucking comic books.
What is a superhuman? Hell of a good question. Hell of a good question. You’d think that after all this time, we’d have a nice simple answer for that. But we don’t. And it’s all because of those comics, I’m telling you.
Back then – you know, back before the supers started turning up - if you asked that question there would be no shortage of takers willing to answer it for you. Any idiot who’d ever read a comic book figured they knew the answer. Oh sure, a superhuman was anybody who had superpowers. Strong, fast, telekinesis, teleporter, shapeshifter, all that science-fiction jazz. It was all pretty binary. You were either super or not. These were the same idiots, you understand, who would say that someone was either a superhero, or a supervillain. Or maybe – god forbid – an anti-hero, although who really knows what the fuck that means.
But even back then, even before the very first superhumans turned up, that childish binary viewpoint didn’t hold water. What about John Irons, the hero called Steel, for example? No powers, just an iron suit. Or Batman, with his gadgets and martial arts skills. Hero, sure. Super? No way. Don’t even get me started on idiotic characters like Deathstroke: the peak of physical fitness but no…'
He breaks off and asks me a direct question
'Do you even know who these guys are?'
[Of course. In fact, I have an extensive knowledge of the so-called ‘superhero’ comic genre]
‘Hmph. I thought comic books were banned. Along with the stories in them.’
'Okay then. You get my point. In the comics, the superhumans had any of a million different crazy superpowers, from teleporting to time-travel and everything inbetween. It’s just fiction, just creative bullshit that made us accept the idea of superpowers without ever considering them.
You know who my favourite comic character was as a kid? What? Oh sure, I read them. Who didn’t? Come on: I was an American teenager before the first superhuman sparked. What do you think I read?
My favourite character was a woman called Black Canary. Her superpower – other than strength and flight and stuff – was her voice. A single scream from her could turn mountains into dust. Stupid, huh? The kind of unthinking stupid that led to great stories, but stupid all the same. I mean, come on: what happened if she sneezed? Or burped, for Christ’s sake?
All the comic book heroes – and villains – were like that. Ridiculous powers straight out of the imagination of whatever writer thought them up. Idiotic back-stories. Huge pantheons of enemies and love interests. Soap opera sagas about their own clones, or evil twins, or alien despots, or whatever.
Even the good comic writers, the ones that tried to actually consider how the world would really have viewed superhumans, even they fell flat. Even they were stuck trying to entertain teenagers and movie audiences. We never really considered what it would actually be like, and why should we have ever bothered?
Is it any wonder then when the supers actually turned up in the real world, we had no fucking idea what they really were?
The UN guidance was an unholy clusterfuck on the matter. A definition that ended up at seventy-three pages long, with a further two hundred pages of explanatory annotations. Annotations. For a definition. Am I the only one who thought it was genuinely some kind of joke?
I trawled through it once – had to, given my job – and at best it was useless. At worst it was downright dangerous. It didn’t clarify a damn thing, other than talking about abilities beyond standard human parameters.'
[Wasn’t that a start?]
'Not even close. I mean, how do you define ‘standard’ human parameters? What if you say that a superhuman is someone who is stronger or faster, or anything-er than a standard man? Makes sense, right?
But that gets you into a whole other problem. What is a standard man? If I can throw this rock further than the next guy, does that mean that he’s standard and I’m ever-so-slightly super? Or even worse, how do I know that it doesn’t mean that I’m standard and he’s something less than that?
You know, a hundred years ago it was proven – not just guessed, but scientifically proven – that an adult human male simply could never run a four minute mile. This was based on lung size, muscle efficiency, leg length and a dozen other factors. Then, fifty years later, someone broke that record. By the time the supers turned up, kids – normal everyday kids – were breaking it every day at schools across the country.
Where do we draw the fucking line, that’s what I’m saying.
And that’s when things started getting tricky. That’s when we started talking about ideas like some people – for whatever reason – being better than others. Being stronger, or faster, or smarter. What about the kid that picks up a guitar and can play first time? Or the maths prodigy? Or the chess whizz? Is a pro-linebacker more super than a cheerleader? Where do you draw the line?
You’ve heard all these arguments before, I know. But there was a time when these were new questions, when these were things that people had shied away from. You know that even the word superman came from the idea of Übermensch? Nietzsche’s old thing? In fact the original comic book Superman was originally meant to be a bad guy, some kind of Nietzschean supervillain. Did you know that? I only found that out as an adult myself…
I guess as a society we didn’t like thinking about people that way. About any person being better than any other. All people are created equal, right? Everyone has equal rights to everything, everyone is of equal value. Let’s end discrimination, let’s end sexism, racism, ageism, the whole works.
But the supers… when they turned up, they redrew those boundaries.'
[Were other methods to categorise them attempted?]
'Oh sure, the world governments tried everything. The WHO actually ran a full-spectrum genetic assay on every single super they could find. You know what they came up with?
'Course you do. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Blank slates, all of them. There was nothing in a superhuman’s genetic make-up that was any different to you or me…well. You know what I mean. And that caused no end of a shitstorm. What caused it then? What caused superpowers? If it wasn’t something genetic, how could we find out what it was? How could we isolate it? How could we cure it?'
'Sure, cure it. See, a lot of people didn’t take too kindly to the idea of superpowers. You got your religious nuts, who viewed it as a gift from God. You got your other religious nuts, who thought it was a curse from the Devil. Both of them were equally loopy as far as the rest of us rational folk were concerned.
Then there were those who were sure that there was a viral factor, some kind of alien disease that had been unleashed upon us as a plague, or a gift maybe. And anything that was a virus could be cured. And anything that could be cured, could be controlled. If there was any kind of vector to superpowers, any kind of vector at all, you can bet your ass that every government on Earth would have wanted it. If it was a virus we would have weaponised it, if it was a fucking radioactive meteorite we would have harnessed it. And if there was an element of it that was genetic, even slightly genetic, then we would have bred it into a purer strain. We would have spliced and experimented and isolated until we had a monopoly. It would have been nuclear weapons, all over again. Only instead of uranium or plutonium, it would have been a genetic arms race.
But that didn’t happen. Doesn’t matter how much research we threw at it… ‘there is no unifying factor or vector for the advent of superpowers in an individual’. That was in the UN report; only bit of the whole thing that made any damn sense at all.
All we knew was that superpowers sparked into existence at random. Random people, random places, random causes. You’d get a soldier in Syria who sparked seconds before getting shot in the head by a sniper, or a schoolteacher in Mississippi who went to sleep in her bed and woke up floating above her house. No rhyme, no reason, no pattern. Even the initial manifestation, the sparking, was impossible to track, to monitor. It just happened, like the tide. Like it was all fucking inevitable.
The MRI – that’s the Metahuman Response Initiative – worked out a decent classification system whilst those bureaucrats in the UN were still arguing over what font to use for their report. It’s simple, clear, and easy to use in the heat of the moment: that’s why it stuck. That’s why it worked globally, and that’s why it was adopted by everyone. A stick in the eye for the bureaucrats, hey? Can’t say they liked that: they ended up using it as a starting point for their own classification system, mainly because they had no other choice. It was so widely used by the time they got their own shit together, they had no real alternative. They had to add the typical red tape though: by the time the UN were done with it, they had a classification system that was totally incomprehensible to anyone but the academics.'
[Could you outline the UN classification system?]
'Ha! Sure, why not? Like I said, it built on the MRI system, which was a classification process that worked like triage: it was split into three classes. They were pretty straightforward, even for the layperson. The higher the class the more powerful the super, using a system of three categories named after Greek letters.
Your first, most basic supers were the Betas. They were strong. That was it. They had superhuman strength. Of course, it was a lot more than that but the MRI never bothered fine-tuning the descriptions much beyond that for field work. Once you had the right class, you knew exactly what power-set the super had to be packing, right?'
[Surely their strength levels varied?]
'Of course they did, just like anything else. Measuring their strength though, that was a tough call. In the field especially, they categorised supers as low-level, mid-level, or high-level. Low-levels could lift up a car, for example. Mid-levels could probably lift a plane. And high-levels could lift pretty much anything that could handle being picked up. Sure, there was a fair bit of variation, but if the media reported a low-level Beta causing a problem, you knew there weren’t going to be buildings being tossed around. It was all rule-of-thumb, and that’s all it needed to be.
So Beta-class was for super-strength, but that also covered super-durability. And increased agility. Skin hardness. Bone density. Balance. All that sort of shit.
Think about it. What’s the point being strong enough to punch through a door that’s an inch thick and made of solid steel if your skin and bones aren’t durable enough to survive that kind of impact? Sure, you can break the door; but you’ll drive your wrist through your own shoulder at the same time. And what’s the point being able to lift an airliner above your head if your legs break under the strain? No, being super-strong in isolation was a one-way ticket to the morgue.'
[Did that ever happen?]
'What, super powers that killed the super? If they did, I never heard about it. Don’t see why I would have, or why anyone else would have. Think about it; if a super sparked to have, say, high-level strength and nothing else, what then? The first time he uses it to catch a plane falling out of the sky, he gets crushed underneath. Guy dies in a plane wreck. End of story. If it did happen, we never would have even noticed. So the only time we noticed a super sparking – and that’s not just Betas, but all the way up the scale – was if they also sparked all the supporting characteristics to let them survive their own power.
It’s the same for Alpha class supers, as well. Alpha class was our speedster class: an Alpha class super was strong, but also fast. So a high-powered Alpha class super would be as strong as a high-powered Beta class super, except they would be able to run fucking rings around him. Literally, I mean. They’d be one more step up the food chain.
Speaking of which, you need to remember that supers no longer needed to eat. Or drink for that matter. Or shit, come to think of it. It makes sense really, I suppose. A decent Alpha – a mid-level one, say – can maybe dodge a bullet. Where do you think that energy comes from? Breaking the sound barrier would take more carbohydrate stores than a human body would consume in a year, so where do they get the energy?
What? That’s not a rhetorical question, I really don’t fucking know. No-one does. It could be pixie dust and sunbeams for all we were able to work out. All we knew was that they couldn’t get it from food, and – as if to underline that point – no super ever had to eat or drink.
Oh sure, you saw them do it. Of course you did, there were marketing deals, endorsement contracts, advertising promotions. Do you know how much fucking revenue the superteams got from endorsements alone? So for the camera they ate, they drank, whatever. But they didn’t need to. They knew it, and we knew it, and no-one gave a shit.'
[That’s not entirely true, is it?]
[Pixie dust and sunbeams. You said that no-one knew where superhumans got their energy from, but that’s not true]
'You’re talking about the solar power thing?'
[I’m talking about the solar power thing]
'Listen, I’m not arguing that. Supers found their abilities strengthened from exposure to direct sunlight. Preventing them from exposure to the sun made them weaker. Keep them in the dark for long enough, and they were almost baseline human again. That’s all true. But that’s not the whole story.'
'Because it sounded too good, it sounded too poetic. The ultimate superhero – from a comic book point of view, at least – was Superman. And Superman got his strength from the sun, right? His Kryptonian cells acted like a solar battery, drinking up the light from our yellow sun. His body had evolved on Krypton, under the light of a red sun, and so it became supercharged on our sunlight and gave him his superpowers. The thing is, poetic though that similarity seemed, it was bullshit. It was bullshit for three reasons.
Firstly, the amount of energy you can get from solar power is limited. The most efficient solar panels we had – hell, even the most efficient ones the Maker could create now – wouldn’t be able to account for the energy of a super. Even if you could convert one hundred percent of the light falling onto the surface of a person’s skin into usable energy, then that person would have to be buck naked and covered in more skin than a football pitch to even account for a low-level Beta’s strength.
The second thing was the effect of darkness. You keep a super in the dark for long enough, and their powers only weakened. They never fully dissipated, not even after years with no exposure to sunlight: we learned that in the Crucible. If they needed sunlight, how come they never wound down to normal no matter what we did?'
[And the third reason?]
'The third reason is the most obvious one of all. Abyss. Even Watchtower. One never leaves the darkness, the other lives bathed in direct, raw sunlight. And it makes no difference.'
[So the solar power theory was misleading?]
'Nothing more than smoke and mirrors.'
[So what was the final class of superhuman?]
'And then we had the Omega class. The last class, the final super human category. Flight.
This was the rarest power of all. No arms flapping, nothing weird and science-fiction like levitating magnetically or manipulating the air currents. Just outright superman-style flight.
The supers that sparked as Omega class all wore capes, at least at the beginning. I mean, the others had their outfits but no-one else really stuck with the capes. They look kind of stupid if all you can do is lift stuff or move fast. Worse than that, they get in the way, and that’s even if they lasted at all. You run into a burning building and your outfit burns to a cinder: what was the point of having a cape then anyway?
Omegas though…even the lower levels... Nothing makes your heart skip a beat like seeing a man or woman speeding past your window like something out of your childhood, a cape billowing out behind them like…well, like a damn superhero.
So that’s how it broke down. Betas, Alphas, Omegas. Betas were the most common supers, numerically speaking. I mean it varied a bit, country by country, year by year, but on average they held about neck and neck for numbers. Sort of a Normal distribution in terms of their power levels too, I guess: low, mid and high.
Then you had the Alphas. Harder, stronger, faster. The Alpha-level were the real deal, the real superheroes that the public adored. Strong enough to pick up a freight train in one hand, fast enough to break the sound barrier before they broke a sweat. That’s running, I mean.
And then…well, then you had the Omegas. Omega class superhumans. Even the low-power ones took your breath away, and the high power ones…they were something else.
So that was it. Three classes to let you know what cards your super had been dealt – strength, strength and speed, or the full package – and then you just made a guess as to whether their general level of power was high, low, or somewhere inbetween.'
[That doesn’t sound too complicated]
'Sure it doesn’t, not when it’s explained like that. It leads to nine different broad categories of superhuman, from your low level Beta-class, to your high level Omega. The problem is that the UN didn’t leave it there, couldn’t leave it at something that an average joe would understand. The classes were broken down further; they had Deltas, Gammas, Epsilons, a few others. And then each of those was broken down further by having sub classes. Sub-Delta, for example, or post-Alpha class.
Then there were the levels. High, middle and low wasn’t good enough for the bureaucrats. They had to have sub-classes, and categorisations within categorisations… I think they wound up with something like 212 different categories of superhuman by the time they were done.
No-one used them of course, not outside the most technical documentation and research. The media ignored the UN approach entirely. They just stuck with the MRI approach, which was – face it – much sexier. After all, it was MRI that chased down the rogues, it was the MRI soldiers walking heroically out of devastated battlefields with rescued children on their arms. It was MRI soldiers – people like that prick Cassidy – who got the TV interviews and the book deals. They said they took down a high level Alpha, or a mid-level Omega, then that’s what it was. Technical enough to sound intimidating, but simple enough for almost anyone to understand.'
[And when was the first time you saw a high level Omega-class superhuman?]
'…You know, I keep thinking back to that UN report. Defining what it was to be a superhuman. Scrabbling around through science, religion, even philosophy. And it’s that last one that keeps coming back to me.
You ever read Plato? I never have, all that sort of stuff doesn’t interest me. But someone showed me a quote once, years ago, which I never forgot. It’s from one of his books, ‘Politics’ I think. I learnt it off by heart. Couldn’t help myself.
‘There are those men who, by virtue of their natural abilities, cannot be judged by the laws and morals of other men. They are beyond them’.
And sometimes I think that’s all I can say about supers with any certainty. I mean, we had no idea where they came from. Still don’t, and you know it. Is it genetic? Are they alien? Are they made? Where do their powers come from? How do they even work?
They arrived without ceremony, and that was the most disquieting thing about them. One day the world was the one we knew, and then the next there were the few scattered stories. Then a few more. Then a few more. Never enough to make you think twice, never enough to make you think that anything major was happening. Enough to be discreetly covered-up, to be controlled. And then the big-hitters started turning up, making a public spectacle and changing the world with the best of intentions.’
He balls up and throws away the leaf he’d been shredding fitfully for the last few minutes.
‘Fucking Ultraman and that fucking plane.’