by Tom Dillon
I didn‘t try to dodge the bus flying through the air at me. If Captain Zero had instead thrown something smaller, say a Yugo or a Mini Cooper, I would have had a chance, but there was no point in trying to dodge a city bus. Instead I found myself distracted by the details: the blue and green graphic that covered it advertising the Seattle Aquarium; the wheels that were still spinning as though if the bus could just get traction somehow things would be OK; the screaming faces white with terror inside. Then it hit me.
No, not some kind of last second epiphany, the bus hit me.
I put my arms in front of my face in a futile attempt to shield myself from the massive projectile. Then my world went black. I came to, surrounded in darkness pierced by random spears of sunlight. Looking up, I saw a hole in the ceiling, defined only by tiny irregular cracks at the edges where the light shined through. Slowly my other senses came back, and I could hear the sirens and screams, the rumble above of emergency vehicles as they rushed to the scene. I was afraid for a moment that I was in the sewer, but it was dry, and it smelled like my grandmother‘s cellar. I was in the historic Seattle Underground, which had once been at street level but had been covered when the city regraded following a fire. For once I was thankful for a government that was unwilling to spend a dime on infrastructure maintenance.
I tried to move, and found that I didn‘t hurt that bad, apparently the bus had impacted just right. Then I looked down at myself between the blood soaking through my clothes and the red-and-blue bruises already developing on my arms, I was in shock. But I could walk, so I did. I didn‘t want to be anywhere close when they realized that I hadn‘t been smashed like a mosquito under that bus, after all.
As I distanced myself from the scene, I began to feel as though I had left a piece of myself there, and not in the missing skin and blood sense. I was blessed. I could walk away from this whole thing, become a new person, stay under the radar, have a good life, put this whole thing behind me.
It all started with a coin toss. My friend Jim had sent me a link to a page that he had found on Reddit, about how you could test how lucky you were by flipping a coin one hundred times and hoping for the same result every time. When I looked it up, I found it on Facebook, Twitter, everywhere. People were calling it the luck meme. That meme ruined my life.
Here’s how it was supposed to work: You flip the coin a hundred times and guess the same side each time, and you are right maybe 53 or 48 times. If you repeated the test enough times, it would average out to fifty correct guesses per hundred flips. You are average, you can go about your life and forget that you just wasted an hour flipping a damn coin. Some extraordinarily lucky people ended up with 38 or 65 correct answers. They retested and recorded their results, posting them on YouTube. I ended up with 93 correct guesses. I tried it again, and again I was right 93 times. I switched coins, I guessed differently each time, I tried throwing differently, I tried using dice, I tried everything, and the result was always the same: 93. I didn’t tell anyone.
At first, it was exhilarating. I mean, I was luckier than any one person had a right to be. But gradually my good luck began to nag at me. Not in the “great power, great responsibility” way, but in the realization that everything that I believed that I had worked for, had earned, was just the product of good luck. I was like a fish in an aquarium, unaware than my apparent success at dominating my environment was due entirely to factors beyond my control. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my “achievements” were the very things that shielded me from risk, the invisible walls of the aquarium. So I did my best to leave it all behind. My condo that was worth more than what I owed, even after the housing crash, my retirement portfolio that had taken only a minor dip before starting to grow again, I gave it all away. I quit my job. I walked away from it all.
I was alone, and the loneliness bothered me a bit, but on the other hand, how could I have an honest relationship? Maybe some part of me had always known that something wasn’t quite right, maybe that was why I had broken off every relationship before it got serious.
Within a month, I was pretty close to where I wanted to be, living in a motel with no job and no possessions beyond what I could fit in my backpack. I didn’t even have a cell phone. Living there, with my cash rapidly dwindling, waiting for the inevitable eviction was a rush, taking an actual risk for the first time in my life.
But it didn’t work out. When I stopped paying no one came to kick me out. Fresh mints still appeared on my fresh sheets every afternoon. I waited for a few days. Nothing. A week later and still nothing. Finally, I went to the front desk to complain, but they couldn’t help me, they showed me as having paid through the end of the year, and through some cruel twist of fate, they refused to kick me out. I didn’t want to wait until the end of the year to find out what would happen, it was only February and I had no reason to think that something else wouldn’t happen before then. It was clear that I would have to take matters into my own hands.
A few days later, an idea came to me while I was watching the news. Some super-crook had just been busted by the city’s superhero. The idea was brilliant. If my luck was supernatural in nature, it would take something supernatural to cancel it out. If I were to fight a superhero and win, there was no way it could be anything other than me, not my luck, not random chance, me. Sure, I could fight the forces of evil, but that wouldn’t be much of an achievement, after all, the superheroes always win.
Full of optimism for the first time in months, I left the motel for the nearest bank. I hesitate to think how things would be different if I had made it there. On the way, I saw the paper, saw the news about unemployment hovering just under 10%, saw the article right below that about the bombing in San Diego, saw the article about the massive cuts to social services for those already on the edge in what was likely to be a futile effort to shore up the state budget. Up until then, I don’t think that a bullet could have stopped me, but the newspaper pushed up against the glass might as well have been a concrete wall.
If the superheroes always won, why wasn’t the world a better place? The Supers had been around for over a decade, shouldn’t the world be nothing but sunshine and bunnies by now? I turned around, turned my back on a life of crime, and went to the library.
A computer had just freed up when I arrived, so I sat down and started doing some research on the internet. The media, it seemed, hadn’t been doing a very good job of covering the Supers. Massive Wikipedia articles were devoted to the stories that would never show up on TV. It wasn’t looking good. The superheroes weren’t winning, weren’t even fighting it to a draw, they just had better PR.
I had no battle armor, no spandex, no cape. No mask. I had no idea what I would need, so I just took what seemed useful and would fit in my cargo pants: a multi-tool, brass knuckles, zip ties, a camera, a first aid kit, and a taser. I walked out into the world anonymous, I didn’t need a name or a secret identity, all I wanted to do was push the fulcrum a bit, give Good some leverage, and it was a task better done in the shadows.
I didn’t make it two blocks before I heard a scuffle from an alley. I stood at the entrance as other people passed by me on the sidewalk wrapped in their bubbles of defensive oblivion. I paused, then walked towards the source of the commotion.
It was like something out of a bad movie. Two guys in dirty clothes and bad shaves had a younger guy up against the brick wall. The kid looked like a yuppie, sheathed in assembly-line style and a distantly horrified expression that said ‘Is this really happening? To me? I don’t believe it’. Instinct told me to turn around and let reality run its course, but that would have been missing the point. Being young and oblivious wasn’t a crime.
“You know how this works. Your wallet.” One of the thugs held out his hand towards the victim. A slim leather wallet was produced and handed over. The thug opened it and pulled out a wad of bills before tossing it on the ground deeper into the alley.
“Your phone,” the other one said. The man pulled a shiny new smartphone out of his pocket and handed it over as well. As soon he had it he pried off the back and removed the battery before putting them both in his pocket.
My swing caught the bigger one square in the jaw as he turned to leave. The blow connected perfectly, and with my strength compounded by the brass knuckles he dropped to the ground, unconscious. The other one was quick, and the next thing I knew I was barely dodging a knife aimed at my chest. His momentum carried him forward and somehow I got my elbow on the back of his neck as he passed. Then it was over. The kid just stood there, petrified.
I crouched and fished the man’s phone out of one of the thugs’ pockets. I snapped the battery back in place, and then tossed it back to the man, who almost didn’t catch it.
“Should I call the police?” he asked.
I thought for a moment. “No. I want them to tell their friends.” I started to leave.
“Thanks man,” the guy said to my back. I didn’t look back.
The next couple of weeks were filled with more of the same. I stopped muggings, caught video of a hit and run, stopped a bad cop from kicking some homeless guy’s teeth in, even prevented a rape. I didn’t have to look for trouble, if I wanted it, it was there. I had never felt better.
Something was wrong, though. I wasn’t really making a dent in overall crime rates. I wasn’t even really making the news, unless you count a three paragraph blurb buried in page 14 of the Times, which I didn’t. Fighting Seattle’s small crime felt good, but I felt like my time was being wasted, I wasn’t doing anything that the cops couldn’t do. I needed something bigger.
That something came to me as I watched the news. There was a human interest story about a family who was losing their house because Boeing was switching manufacturing of a small component from a local business to a company near Detroit. Since the house was worth only about half of what they owed on it, the family was well on the road to destitution. It was the sort of story that you were supposed to feel both bad and powerless about, and for the most part that was what I felt.
But the next story was about a local bank that was pulling in record profits. Sure it wasn’t the same company that was kicking the family out of their house, but the connection was undeniable. I had been planning on finding a supervillain to square off against, but this was better.
The following morning I was ready, dressed in a tailored black suit with a bright red tie. As much as I was fond of my casual clothes, I figured that even with my luck they wouldn’t let someone who looked like a college student in to see the CEO. I wouldn’t be able to carry all my gear, but then again, I wouldn’t need much, just a camera.
The SeaBank lobby was dominated by a security station that somehow managed to look modern inside the glass and granite surrounding. There was a waterfall that cascaded from hanging garden to hanging garden in front of the elevators. The security guards manning the station looked alert and professional. Not a good sign, but I walked straight towards them anyway.
“Hello, I have an appointment to see Mr Johnson, the CEO,“ I said.
The guard fiddled with the computer for a moment before looking back up at me. “Mr. Smithings, right.“
Before I could answer, a whirring noise came from the printer and he handed me a shiny plastic visitor‘s pass with my face and the name John Smithings printed on it. I took it and clipped it on to my lapel.
“Thanks,“ I said, and started walking towards the elevator lobby.
When it arrived after a few seconds of waiting the elevator took me straight up to the top floor without stopping. The doors opened to reveal a bright space with glass overhead and the hallways to my left and right terminating in walls of sloping glass. Ahead of me was a set of double doors that were made out of a rich red wood that had a natural pattern resembling an artist’s impression of a Rorschach ink blot. Carved into the area next to the doors was a massive desk covered in neat stacks of paper, a phone that looked like NASA mission control paraphernalia, and a sleek computer.
I stopped at the desk and waited for the CEO’s assistant to finish with whoever was on the phone. “Mr. Smithings?” she asked.
“Mr. Johnson is waiting for you,” she said to me before turning her attention to her headset and announcing him to her boss.
Cecil Johnson‘s office was classy, with just enough furniture and a small collection of classic paintings and sculpture to give the large room some character. The entire back wall was glass, looking out over downtown Seattle and Elliot Bay, giving the impression that the man behind the desk was the last man on earth.
“Who are you?“ the CEO said. Apparently that made two people who knew that I wasn‘t Smithings.
“That‘s not important,“ I said. I took my small HD video camera out of my pocket and removed the backing from the foam tape stuck to the back of it. I stuck it to the door, and pressed the Record button, causing the red indicator light to come on.
“Then what is important?“ he asked.
“What you do, Mr. Johnson, what you are.“ I was trying my best to be menacing, but all I got out of him was a single raised eyebrow.
“And what would that be?“
“You came here expecting what, some sort of caricature of greed, some straw man to knock over? Fuck you.“ His voice never rose as he spoke to me and the camera, and that calm assertiveness accomplished more that ranting or yelling ever could have. “The fact is that I’m part of a system, a system that includes you. That system is no more dependent upon me than it is upon you. So you can take your little camera and get the hell out.”
I was taken aback by his preemptive lecture. I hadn’t given much thought to what I would say to him, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have had a response for him anyway. So I used the time tested last resort of those who have lost an argument, I vaulted over his desk and beat the crap out of him.
Getting out was easy. I walked out of his office, down the hall to the elevator, rode the elevator to the ground floor, then left the building as everyone else rushed in the opposite direction. It was easy. Much easier than editing the video into something that would play well on YouTube, at least.
I left almost all of the footage in, only cutting the very beginning and end so that people wouldn‘t have to watch me setting up and taking down the camera. I had done test runs with it to figure out where it needed to be on the wall, so it looked remarkably well-shot, considering that I had never used a video camera until a few weeks prior. The tough part was shooting footage of myself explaining what would happen (which was easy), and doing it in such a way that I didn‘t look like a complete idiot (which was very difficult).
After a few hours of recording, re-recording, and editing, I finally got it right. Pressing the button to upload it was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I was going to be a hero. I wanted to draw the feeling out for as long as possible, but eventually I clicked, and it was out of my hands.
My luck, it seems, did not extend to the public‘s reaction to the video.
Within a few hours I was vilified, called a vigilante, a thug, and worse. By the evening it was on the news under the headline: A New Supervillain? If anyone spoke in my defense, I did not hear it.
The criticism gave weight to Johnson‘s arguments, and I was afflicted with self doubt for the first time in a long time. I didn‘t leave my motel room until the next afternoon, and that was only because I had run out of rum. It was then that Captain Zero found me.
A grinding crash behind me brought me back to the present. Apparently they had decided to check underneath the bus. I had put a good bit of distance between myself and the bus, but I knew it wasn’t enough. I needed to get aboveground. I started walking faster, looking down the grit encrusted passageways to find only dead ends.
I don’t know if my luck ran out or my luck picked up on my subconscious desire to fight Captain Zero, because I turned a corner to find his hulking figure, his blond hair nearly brushing the ceiling.
He opened his mouth, but no sound came out as he thought. Finally he said, “You don’t even have a proper name, do you have any idea how pathetic that is?”
I stopped. I had been expecting some accusation of wrongdoing, something heroic. But he was insulting me. “What? Why are you even after me? That prick deserved it.”
“Maybe, but you can’t just go beating up private citizens,” he said. “Justice comes from the courts, not your fists.”
Could this guy hear himself? I wished I could chalk it up to bad acting, but he was standing right in front of me, not a teleprompter in sight. “So, are you going to arrest me or something?” I asked.
“No. I’m not sure what your ability is, but it’s clear you have something going for you. No, I can’t let you make it to a courtroom.”
Captain Zero was supernaturally strong and tough, but until that day I hadn’t known he was immune to irony as well. Clearly talking wasn’t going to get me anywhere. “Fuck you,” I said, echoing the words of the man whose beating had started all of this.
Captain Zero started towards me then, not running, but walking determinedly. I had no plan, just faith that my luck would win out. As he approached, I realized how stupid that faith was. I reached into my pockets, not sure what I had that would do anything, and pulled out my taser. If I had more time I would have laughed at the puny black chunk of plastic in my hand. Captain Zero did laugh. Still, it wasn’t as if I had a better option, I had seen the man shot, flamed, and hit by a train, all to no effect. The forces of Chaos hadn’t exactly set the bar high, I could call just about anything a win.
When he was a few feet away, he lunged at me, catching me in the face with his fist. I felt my cheekbone shattering under the impact. Somehow I latched onto him and shoved the taser into his side, just below the ribs, and pulled the trigger.
He spasmed, and I kept holding the trigger down and pushing it into his body. His superhuman muscles started to spasm and his face turned bright red. I kept the taser on him. The spasm’s grew bigger and bigger, like a spinning top losing it’s center, and with a loud crack his entire body jolted at once, throwing me back into the wall hard enough to knock the wind out of me.
When I was able to breath enough to get up, I found him on the ground, his neck sitting at an odd angle and his eyes staring up at the ceiling, blank, lifeless.
I heard people coming from down the passageway. I started in the opposite direction, moving as quickly as my battered body could manage, not caring where I went, trusting my luck to see me through. When I emerged from the Underground, people looked away, horrified at the wreck of my face. I would need to see to that. I stepped out into the street where there was an empty taxi stopped at the light.
I pulled myself in, and held a $50 bill up to the partition and said, “Hospital.”
The driver didn’t say anything, but slid open the window and took the bill before turning on his blinker and pulling through the light.
I woke up in the hospital a few days later to a doctor who told me how lucky I was to be alive, and that it looked like everything was going to heal just fine. My jaw was wired shut, so when he asked if I had insurance I just shook my head no. It turned out that they had a plastic surgeon who would take me on as a charity case.
Clearly I couldn’t go around beating up bankers, but something that Johnson had said to me stuck with me. It was all just a huge system, and that was what my luck did, manipulated systems. I could change things for the better. I wasn’t sure how it would work, I would just have to trust my luck.