by Martin Maenza
A young black man with short curly black hair shaved on the sides and a slight mustache and beard, sat at a small outdoor table. He was dressed in casual slacks and a shirt, and his single gold stud earring glinted in the evening light.
Across the way was the another man with dark hair and features, nicely dressed. The two men held hands casually as they talked over an after-dinner drink.
Hero Cruz was smiling and happy, even laughing at his companion’s occasional jokes.
Suddenly, something crashed down from above, smashing the table to the floor.
Both men fell backward, their chairs tumbling to the patio stone.
Hero Cruz scrambled about on the ground as a shadow cast over him.
A gray-skinned creature in armor with sharp, dagger-like teeth snarled at him, lunging for his face.
The creature roared.
The black man bolted straight up from where he was lying in a complete state of disorientation. “Whaaa…?” he wondered softly under his breath.
The room was dank, filled with shadows and very little illumination; it took his eyes a good moment to adjust to the dimness. There seemed to be a good-sized flicker of light from something or another coming from an adjacent room through a damaged doorframe — no door, though, just the frame.
That light seemed to help somewhat. The man glanced about the room he was in. The walls seemed to be thickly coated with something black and dingy. It could have been dirt or soot. He reached out one arm to touch the nearest wall, then drew it back, rubbing his fingers together. Probably a combination of both, he thought.
The floor beneath him was hard like concrete — rough, too. And though he sat upon a coarse and crudely constructed mat made of some ragged, torn hide, it was hardly a help. The mat was barely a half-inch thick, if that. Laying directly on the floor itself would have yielded the same soreness in his back muscles.
He flexed his shoulders a bit and groaned softly.
His body was not his own. Not really, anyway. The special device that he wore about his neck somehow transformed him every time he dialed the letters H-E-R-O. This last time Hero Cruz used it, the young man was changed from his normal build to that of a taller, musclebound, leather-clad hero called the Bouncer.
Speaking of, where’s my jacket? the Bouncer thought, feeling the air on his exposed arms.
He started to rise, a little wobbly on his knees, when the lighting of the room changed. His sore muscles tensed as he prepared to defend himself.
“Korr, I heard a ruckus…” an elderly woman with a scratchy, worn voice said as she entered the room. Her clothing was torn, ragged shreds, really, and mostly gray. Her hair was long, stringy, and oily, clearly unwashed. She walked with a bit of a hunch to her stance, and carried in her hands some kind of small tray with a crude bowl on it.
As Mada entered the room and turned her head, she saw that the black man was conscious and starting to stand. “Aaa-aaahhh!” she screamed like a siren. Her hands jerked. The tray tilted, and the bowl of food fell to the ground. The container shattered, and some mushy substance splattered on the floor.
But Mada paid that no heed. Something else concerned her more.
“My boy, my boy!” the old woman screamed as she swung back the tray and then forward. “What’d you do with my boy?” She swung the tray like a club, bringing it down upon the Bouncer’s head.
“Owww! Owww!” the Bouncer said as he flinched back. While the woman barely had much strength, and the tray hardly hurt at all, she was still clobbering him in the head, and it was annoying.
“Where’s my boy? What’ve you done to Korr?” she continued to say as she struck him again and again with the tray.
“Nothing!” the hero shouted over her. He thrust out his hand, grabbed the tray, and twisted. “Stop hitting me!” His strength was much more than hers, and the metal makeshift weapon went clattering across the room.
Mada fell backward to the floor, hard. As the Bouncer rose to his feet, she began to cower, hiding her head in her hands. “Don’t kill me…” she begged. “I’m just an old woman…”
The man blinked. Her demeanor had gone from attacker to victim in one fell swoop. “Kill you?” he asked. “Why would I kill you?” He offered his hand out, open, to try to help her up.
Mada cowered, shaking. After a moment, she peeked and saw that the man was not trying to threaten her. She frowned a bit. “You… you won’t hurt me?”
The Bouncer shook his head. “No.”
The woman nodded and took his hand. It seemed so frail, so tiny in his. Carefully he helped her to her feet. “Thank you,” the woman said, and she turned. She noticed the broken bowl and food spilled on the floor. “That won’t do.” She shook her head and started for the doorway.
He waited a moment and started to follow. “Sorry if I made you drop…” he was saying as he came through the opening.
A large stick swung about the front of his neck, and the Bouncer felt something thud against his back. Mada was trying to choke him, or at least cut off his airflow, with the aid of a large pot stirrer.
“I told Korr… uh… we should have killed you!” Mada grunted as she pulled back on both ends of the stick with all her might. She leveraged her foot into the center of his back to try to get more tension on her weapon. “Or left you for the Ash-Crawlers or Dog Soldiers… to find!”
“Guk… gak,” the black man gasped, trying to get some air to speak. It did little good.
The old woman, despite her appearance and size, was tough. He had underestimated her, dropped his guard. And he would pay for it, too, if he didn’t do something fast.
The Bouncer used his own hands to grab at the stick. He tried to get to the ends to pull it forward and free the pressure on his neck.
The old woman began to kick at his back, to knee him, anything to stop him. A couple of the jabbing shots hit sore spots.
The hero wasn’t about to give in.
He grabbed for her hands, placing his own on hers, and applied a good bit of pressure. Mada howled out in pain, causing her grip to loosen on the stick. The Bouncer was then able to pull it forward and hurl it across the room into the small, round pit with flames dancing from it.
Mada fell to the ground again with a groan.
The man caught his breath, then turned about. “Lady, what is your problem?” he asked. Hero’s parents had raised him to always respect the elderly, but this woman was clearly going to kill him if he didn’t keep an eye on her. She had already attacked him twice in a span of less than five minutes.
What was going on here?
“Get away from my mother!” a voice commanded from the doorway. Both people in the room turned to see a man with scraggly, long brown hair, an unshaven face, and dirty features standing there, his fists raised.
“Korr!” Mada cried out.
The Bouncer’s eyes narrowed. The man was wearing his leather jacket, and something else, too. He focused on the opening near the chest and saw a glint of something shiny and golden in color. Instinctively, the black man put his hand to his own neck, and that’s when he realized it. The H-Dial! This Korr has my H-Dial! he thought.
“You, thief!” the Bouncer cursed. “Give me back my stuff!” His powerful legs propelled him across the room, over the small fire-pit, toward the very surprised man. Just as the black man’s feet touched the ground, Korr snapped out of his amazement and started to run.
“Hey! Not so fast!” the black man ordered, grabbing at the scraggly man.
His hand managed to snag the tail end of the leather jacket.
Korr slipped his arms free of the sleeves, for the jacket was rather large on him, anyway, and darted out of the dwelling into the street.
“Damn it!” the Bouncer cursed as he started to run after the fleeing man, all the while slipping the jacket over his arms and into place. “Come back here!”
Korr had the advantage as he ducked under large overhanging pipes that seemed to jut out here and there between the rundown tenements of the slum area. He’d grown up in areas just like this one, having spent most of his life in the streets either looking for food and water or running for his life from those who would fight him for these bare necessities. A survival instinct was key in a place such as this.
No matter where one went on the planet, the slums were pretty much all the same: dismal and unimaginably dirty. Each was typically surrounded by fences, with posted signs indicating the area number. That’s how the residents could distinguish where they were — by the area number that helped serve as a “hometown” designation.
Homes, if they could be called that, were pretty much the same for the most part: a three-walled shelter with a roof that didn’t leak much, if one was lucky enough. A fire-pit was located inside some of them; Korr and his mother had to fight hard to protect their dwelling because of that. Water, however, had to be retrieved from the community well. And there was no guarantee when the supply would run dry, as the water had to come up from deep within the surface of the planet. Any water found on the surface was no doubt polluted and contaminated many generations ago, in part thanks to the huge factories and heavy smoke and gases they spewed forth into the atmosphere. If the world had ever had a natural surface with trees and plants and water, it had long since been replaced by the huge engines of destruction that the world was famous for.
The homes, which were hovels, really, were never owned for long; the inhabitants rotated with the arrivals and departures of recruitment aero-carriers. The best homes were ruinous apartments of two or three rooms. These establishments were secure from the shock waves of distant explosions and were located far from the main streets. However, even the most civilized home could be destroyed in an instant by the armed forces. They were routinely discovered, secured, then wrecked.
A small, multi-legged lizard scurried past the alleyway before Korr. Normally he would chase after it, for food like that could sustain them for a day or so. However, now was not the time for that. The strange man was awake, angry, and after him. He had to do whatever he could to lead the man away from his home, to keep him from his mother.
After father came down with disease and was taken off to the quarantine compound, I’m the man of the house, Korr thought as he ran. Some man I am, though! If I’d known the man we found in the street yesterday was such a threat, I never would have dragged him back to our home. Korr had hoped that the stranger’s clothes and things could be used for bartering.
In all his years, he’d never known of anyone whose clothing was not rags or whose appearance was clean. Most likely some kind of spy! Korr thought now. Brought in to infiltrate the homes, looking for rebellion factions.
Korr came to the end of the way and brushed up to the tall and sturdy fences that marked the edge of the installation area. He cursed to himself, as he was forced to cut back a bit. He hoped he could still stay out of the strange man’s path, assuming he hadn’t given up already.
From this border spot, the scraggly haired man could see a large statue looming nearby. It was the likeness of this world’s ruler: a grim, stony visage that looked almost as much like the ruler himself with whose appearance, it was said, was very much like stone. Korr felt a chill upon seeing it. If one could go his entire life, no matter how long or short, without gazing upon the true face of Darkseid, they were truly blessed.
Korr cut back across a small bridge that connected to others that skirted over deeper fire-pits. He didn’t like being so out in the open, preferring ducking and dodging through the mazes of half-demolished buildings ready to collapse. There were dangers being out in the open streets, and one never knew if they would run upon…
Korr stopped dead in his tracks. “Uh-oh!” His jaw dropped, and his eyes grew wide at what was before him.