A Short Story
Author’s note: when I first wrote this story, I used the word “parahuman,” similar to how DC uses “metahuman,” and the MCU uses “enhanced.” I was aware of the Parahumans web serials at the time, but I hadn’t read them, and I didn’t realize how much like a knockoff it would make this story sound. Therefore, I have since changed it to the more generic “superhuman.”
In a scene that looked almost like it could have been in an ordinary classroom, about fifteen middle children from the ages of five to fifteen were sitting in a lecture hall, waiting for the seminar to start. They all looked normal enough, but you could never tell these days. Twenty or twenty-five of their parents sat in the rows behind them, regarding the scene playing out between the front and back of the room.
At the front, a young man—perhaps college-aged—stood waiting patiently in front of a screen that currently displayed only a jittery blue field. He had a friendly, unassuming demeanor, but he was well-known locally in Arizona, his face having appeared on the news a few times. He wore a functional tan outfit designed to blend in with the desert sand, and even his hair was sandy-colored. He might have been going a little too far with the Superman coif, but as he liked to say, since the Man of Steel himself was still, sadly, fictional, someone had to take up the slack.
At the back of the room was the malfunctioning projector, and a little girl of no more than eight had it partially disassembled and was fiddling with it with a roll-out toolkit while it was still running. The “don’t try this at home” was implied. The girl was growing increasingly frustrated with the equipment and eventually gave it a good, hard smack. Instantly, the first slide appeared on the screen.
“Adeline,” the man chided. “You’re supposed to be the most brilliant technopath in the country, and your solution is to hit the thing?”
“Excuse me,” Adeline said, “the technical term is ‘mechanical agitation’. It’s well-documented.” She reassembled the projector in less than a minute and rolled up her toolkit. “Try not to break her again,” she said before leaving the room.
With the projector fixed, the screen said:
AMERICAN SUPERHUMAN ASSOCIATION
SUMMER TRAINING CAMP
The young man standing by the screen spoke: “Welcome, everyone. My name is Caden Campbell, also known as Desert Falcon. I want to welcome all of you to your first summer training camp. I commend you for the excellent attendance this year. Almost everyone who registered with the Arizona APA in the past twelve months is here, which proves that you—or at least your parents—understand how important this is.
“I still want to remind you, though: just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean you know how to use them. That part has to be learned. In the comic books, you’d get a fun and heartwarming origin story to figure them out on your own while saving the day and establishing your arch-nemesis. In real life, that can get you badly hurt, or worse, even if you don’t have an arch-nemesis. We’re here to teach you how to use your powers safely before you get into real trouble, so I want you all to pay close attention. And remember, if you even want to think about getting a Superhero License, you have to earn our recommendation first.
“Now, our strategy here is simple: we’ve paired up each of you with a tutor who will be your main teacher for the summer. Everyone else around here—the other supers, and the doctors, chaperons, counselors, and anyone else—will be around to help you. You can come to any of us for help and advice, but your tutor will be the main person working with you. For all of you, your tutor will be someone whose powers are as close as possible to your own, and who has proven their skills with them.
“Different people get powers at different ages, and we all know supers have only been around for about twenty years, so for some of you, your tutor might be younger than you, but trust me, he or she does know what they’re doing. Listen to them because they know how to use their powers without getting hurt, and they can teach it to you.”
Some of the teenagers—and, indeed, some of the parents—murmured unhappily at the idea of being taught by a child. The tutors were getting better (and older) every year, but there was always at least one person who didn’t want to cooperate and several who complained.
“Look, I know this isn’t the easiest job,” Caden said, “but we’re doing the best we can. Powers are still a pretty new thing, and very rare. Even after twenty years, there are still only a couple hundred of us in the Arizona, and maybe ten thousand in the country.”
One boy who looked to be about fourteen raised his hand.
“Yes?” Caden pointed to him.
“Look, I get how some powers are dangerous. I mean, you can fly. My power is seeing across the EM spectrum. Can’t get in too much danger with that, can you? I don’t need to be here.”
Caden stared at the boy. “What’s your name, kid?” he asked.
“Alright, you looking to go superhero, Vic?”
“Sort of. I thought maybe the PD could use me for recon or something. I can see infrared and microwave and stuff.”
“Really? Well, that’s still a superhero job, so let’s try that out, then.” Caden said. He waved his hands, and several things happened: the doors to the room closed; a book propped itself up in front of the projector beam, and, finally, the lights flipped off, leaving them in near-darkness. “Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, this’ll just teach him a small lesson. Can you still see me, Vic?”
“Of course I can.”
“Good. How about now?”
Caden clapped his hands loudly. A small flash of light appeared directly in front of Vic Valdez’s face, and he screamed and toppled over backwards: “Ahh! What the hell?”
The lights came back on, and the projector beam reappeared. Vic staggered to his feet with his hands clutched over his eyes. When he pulled them away, he was squinting and blinking into the light. The rest of the kids laughed.
“Vic, are you alright?” the boy’s mother said.
“He’ll be fine in a minute, ma’am,” Caden replied.
“What did you do?” Vic demanded.
“I rapidly compressed the air in front of your face, causing it to superheat and generate enough infrared radiation to temporarily blind you. And for the record, my power is much more than flight. It’s telekinesis. I could sense exactly where you were, and I could hurt you without me or my power ever touching you because I understood your power better than you do. It’s a weakness as well as a strength, and any criminal with a brain is going to exploit that.
“Having powers isn’t all fun and games,” he continued. “Invisibility sounds like a fun and harmless power until you trip and break your nose because you couldn’t see where you were stepping. Actually, it can be worse than that. I know a boy in Texas whose particular form of invisibility works by bending light around his body. That means the appearance of anything he touches is be distorted. He nearly cut his fingers off because he didn’t know how to handle a knife while he was invisible.
“If you can grow armor plating on your skin, it sounds like a safe and completely defensive power—until something gets between the plates by accident. Or if you break your buddy’s collarbone because you can’t feel how hard you clapped him on the shoulder.
“I know a girl in California who can control pheromones. She can toy with people’s emotions. It can cause a lot of trouble for other people, but you wouldn’t think it could hurt her because she could always calm people down. That is, until she gave her boyfriend too much oxytocin. People call oxytocin the “love hormone” because it’s linked with pair bonding and family bonding, but she didn’t know it’s also linked with aggressive behavior…Their relationship didn’t fare too well after that.”
By now, the class was looking surprised and a little disturbed—both children and parents. “The point is that any power can be dangerous if you don’t know how to use it,” Caden concluded. “Sometimes you just need practice, like how to not fly into a building, and sometimes you need to know a lot of boring scientific details to keep from getting hurt. But every power requires training to be able to use it safely and effectively, and that’s why you’re here. Any other questions?”
Most of them looked too scared to speak. The Desert Falcon was no pushover.
“Good. Let’s get started.”
The rest of the presentation covered the basics of the training program. For the most part, it was individualised, with the tutor doing the training and evaluating. However, all of the trainees would need to be periodically checked over by a doctor and a psychologist, since powers could sometimes have unexpected side effects. At the end, which could take anywhere from a few days to all summer, the trainees would need to demonstrate their command of their powers to a committee who would decide whether they could be trusted to use them unsupervised. There were higher qualifications later on, too. For example, had Caden been born a decade later, he wouldn’t have been able to train himself on his own. There would have been an examination to decide if he was good enough to fly with another person in tow and another to recommend him for a Superhero License. None of them were legally binding, any more than swimming lessons were, but a super licensed or not could get in big trouble for hurting someone while doing something the APA told them not to.
At the end of the presentation, Caden assigned each of the trainees with their tutors. Vic Valdez, who had questioned the value of the whole program, was paired with an undercover agent whose true name even Caden didn’t know, but whose codename was Diamondback. The oldest of the trainees, a sixteen-year-old girl with a prosthetic arm and a punk outfit who swore her legal name was Electra Hacker, looked very put out to be paired with Adeline, a girl only half her age.
After handing each of the trainees their information about their tutor and dismissing them, there was only one family left in the room. Caden approached them and shook the younger boy’s hand. “Jonah Dietrich, I presume?” he asked. The boy nodded. “I’ll be working with you personally.”
Jonah Dietrich was ten years old, brown-skinned and lighter-brown-haired. His mother, Jasmine, was a small black woman, while his father, Cameron, was a head taller and lily-white with bright yellow hair and a hint of a German accent presumably acquired from Grandma and Grandpa Dietrich. Needless to say, they didn’t fit the typical demographics of Arizona, but superpowers didn’t discriminate, and in a place where people had been know to wind up green and furry, no one batted any eye.
The rest of the family shook Caden’s hand as well, although one of them had to be nudged to do it: Jonah’s thirteen-year-old and bored-looking brother, Micah. Micah was taller and thinner, like their father, annoyed-looking, and (so far) had no discernible powers—not that that was proof of anything. Caden was well aware that it was entirely possible that there were people out there with the power of being impervious to radiation or of being able to survive in the vacuum of space, and they would never know it. In the comic books, they would just happen to get into an accident that demonstrated these powers, but in the real world the odds of that happening were astronomical. Heck, it often took years for a superhuman to figure out that he or she was fireproof or could breathe underwater. The modern world was simply too safe for such things to be obvious.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Dietrich,” Caden said as they greeted him. “And…Micah,” he added after consulting their file.
“Sup,” Micah grunted.
“Welcome to Flagstaff. Have you been here often?”
“Just once in a while, Mr. Campbell,” Cameron said.
“Please, call me Caden. I think you’ll like it around here. This is a beautiful area to learn to fly—canyons, forests, mountains.”
“Is that safe?” Jasmine asked.
“He has to learn it sometime, ma’am. Better now, when he’s supervised. If all goes well, we’ll be putting in quite a bit of time down at Oak Creek Canyon this summer. Now, first things first. Jonah, I see you were first evaluated by Dr. Agustin Alvarez. He’s a good man. He’s the one who got me started. I trust he was helpful?”
“If by helpful, you mean he’s nuts, but he knows his stuff, then yes,” Jasmine answered in annoyance.
“That’s the best kind,” Caden answered, lightly thumbing through the digital file. “I know this guy named Dorian in Washington State—med school. He’s practically certifiable, but he’ll be a better doctor that I ever could be—between telepathy and a photographic memory, he could barely be better if he had healing powers…Anyway, Jonah: evaluated by Dr. Alvarez three months ago, referred to the APS, registered as telekinetic, annotation two months ago for flight, annotation six weeks ago for sustained flight. Lifting power not tested in the last month, and no injuries requiring professional treatment so far.”
“Thank you, Jesus,” Jasmine said.
“Yes, that is rather lucky, but we’ll need to test your lifting power pretty soon, Jonah. Training’s only really effective if you know your limits. The good news is, it looks like you’re going to turn out to be pretty strong.”
“Really?” Jonah asked. “As strong as you?”
His mother elbowed him for his rudeness, but Caden just smiled and said, “It could be. Are you thinking about going superhero, Jonah?”
“I thought so. Most boys around here want to. It’s like becoming a fireman—and just as difficult. It’s a hard road, but you can do it with the right training. Anyway, come on, let’s get some lunch.”
Lunch was a buy-your-own affair in one of the cafeterias at Northern Arizona University, where the summer camp was set up. That was a convenient arrangement, since there were always professors around to study various children’s powers and help them control them if need be. The selection of Northern Arizona—well, that was mostly down to the Desert Falcon, who bought the Dietrich Family’s lunch for them on the APA’s dime.
They chatted about less weighty matters at lunch, though touching some on Jonah’s antics with his telekinesis. He hadn’t managed to cause himself any serious injury, but he had certainly caused some trouble with it. Caden knew well that there was plenty of pranking potential there, not to mention bullying and other less savory things. That was another reason to intervene with superhumans as early as possible.
For his part, Caden shared some stories from his crime-fighting adventures and, predictably, found himself having to correct some misconceptions. Even after five years of seeing officially licensed superheroes in action plus the five or so years of unofficial superheroing before the licensing laws, most laypeople still had the comic book image in their minds.
“Real superheroes can’t be on duty all the time,” he explained. “We don’t sit in little studio apartments listening for trouble on the police scanner. We live normal lives. We’re just on call by phone, like emergency room doctors. I’ll even fly off to the Grand Canyon to get away from civilization for a day, and things don’t fall apart while I’m gone. The reason is that, for one, we have competent police, and for another, any city big enough to need it can set up a rotation for superheros. Even here in Flagstaff, we have two heavy hitters—me and Roadrunner—and we can switch off days.”
“And the villains don’t cause trouble while you’re gone?” Jonah said.
“What villains?” Caden said, to the family’s surprise. “Oh, sure, there are a few villains, but not many. See, in comic books, every hero gets his or her own rogues gallery. There are about ten times as many villains as heroes to keep things interesting. But there aren’t that many supervillains in the real world because most people aren’t criminals in the real world, and when we catch them, they’re much more likely to stay caught. Most of our work is gangs and fires.”
“Really? It’s not, like…” Jasmine started, but she trailed off, unsure of what really ought to fit if it wasn’t supervillains.
“What? Mass shootings? Bombs? Terrorists? No. Good rule of thumb: if it’s worth putting on the news, its too rare to be a big part of our business. We do get a few calls for security alarms, firearms discharge, and car chases, but only the really bad ones where the cops want extra backup. And I take the worst of the car crashes, too, since I can pry apart twisted metal faster than the firemen. But yeah, it’s mostly gangs and fires. It’s not as glamorous as it’s made out to be.”
Thus disillusioned as to the reality of superheroing, the Dietrich Family followed Caden after lunch to a gymnasium on campus, where a number of seemingly random pieces of equipment were set up for Jonah’s first flying lessons. There were stacks of foam blocks, something like a spread-out jungle gym, a rock-climbing wall, and a few other oddities. Caden lead them to the center of the gym and told them, “Flying…” He paused for emphasis. “…is dangerous business. It takes skill and constant concentration to avoid getting hurt. It’s easily as difficult and dangerous as driving, because you have to add a third dimension into it. But seeing as you’ve already started flying, you’d better start learning right away, or it’ll only be worse for you later on. Now, tell me the number one reason why flying is so dangerous,” he ordered.
“Um…because you can fall?” Jonah said.
“Wrong! Unless you’re unconscious or you’re going skydiving, you can usually recovery from a lapse in concentration fast enough to stop a fall. Try again.”
“Um…” The boy had to think longer this time. “You can run into stuff?” he ventured.
“Yes,” Caden said. “Even with modest flying power, you’re going to be going as fast as a car, and not much more maneuverable. All it takes is misjudging a turn, and you slam into the side of a building at highway speeds. It’s just like falling off a roof. It doesn’t end well for you.”
“You’re not exactly instilling us with confidence, here,” Jasmine cut in.
“Oh, it’s very rare to misjudge a turn once you get the hang of it,” he assured her. “It’s not that different from steering a car, ignoring the third dimension, and a car is a lot more abstract with a steering wheel and pedals than moving your own body. The important thing is the training, just like drivers ed. That, and not trying to pull any crazy stunts?”
“Crazy stunts?” Micah spoke up with sudden interest.
“Rule Three of flying: no stunts until you can compute your own trajectory,” Caden said.
“There’s rules?” Jonah said.
“Yes. There are three rules, and there are also three laws. And you’re going to have to learn them. You’re going to have to learn them so well that you can follow them in your sleep because that’s the only way to make sure you can fly safely.”
Jonah was silent. This was shaping up to be less fun than he had expected.
“And what are the rules?” his father asked.
Caden smiled and said, “Rule Number One…” He waved his hand as if he was pulling something. Jonah looked in the direction of the gesture and saw a large foam block sitting against the wall lift up and fly toward him. He reached out to stop it, but he was too slow. The block glanced off his arms and flipped over his head before sliding another twenty feet to a stop.
“What the heck was that?” Jasmine asked angrily.
“Yeah, what was that for?” Jonah added.
“Rule Number One of flying,” Caden repeated. “Always pay attention.”
“So you throw blocks at him?” Jasmine continued.
“Yes, yes I do. This isn’t your ordinary summer camp, and I’m no touchy-feely camp counselor. I’m the Desert Falcon, and you, Jonah, are my trainee. If you want lighter-weight training, I can give you a referral to the California Chapter, but as long as you’re here, I’m going to push you until I’m sure you can fly solo without getting yourself killed. Understand?”
The entire family backed off a little. Out of costume and talking to them face to face, it was easy to forget that Caden Campell was a real live superhero, and a good one, at that. This was the man who had taken down Dire Wolf single-handed two years ago. That thought was what resolved Jonah to take this training seriously. He had a chance to learn from one of the best, and he was going to take it.
“Yes, sir,” he said, to the surprise of his family. “I understand.”
“Well, I still don’t,” his mother cut in. “What was the block for.”
“That was the first exercise,” Caden said. “Learns to dodge foam blocks now, he’ll avoid concrete blocks later—or as they’re more commonly called, buildings.” Jasmine raised her eyebrows and nodded slowly in understanding. “Now, Jonah,” he continued, “can you tell me what you did wrong just now?”
“Um…I didn’t pay attention?” the boy ventured.
“Yes, but more than that. Why didn’t you stop the block in time?”
“‘Cause I didn’t see it coming!” Jonah protested.
“Precisely! That’s what you did wrong. You’re telekinetic; you have the sixth sense. You can feel with your mind where large objects are around you and how much they weigh. Have you tried that?”
“Practice that. Practice it as much as much as you can. It may seem hard now, but it gets easier. You need to point where it’s basically always on—definitely while you’re flying, and it doesn’t hurt the rest of the time.”
“That sounds awfully distracting,” Cameron said.
“The brain is incredibly adaptive, Mr. Dietrich. All it takes is time and practice to incorporate a new sense so that its as natural as sight and hearing. The experience of a superhuman is not the same as your own. I can sense the motion of the Sun and Moon overhead, even if my power can’t reach that far.”
“Whoa,” Jonah said.
“That’s the kind of clarity you need, Jonah. And when you’re flying, you need to react fast.If you sense something moving rapidly toward you, you push back first, and look second.”
Caden flicked his wrist almost imperceptibly, and Jonah tensed up at once and threw his arm out to his left without looking. A second foam block slowed and froze in midair a few feet away from him.
“Good,” said Caden, releasing his grip and allowing him to push the block away. “Now you’re learning. That’s Rule One.”
“Dare we ask about Rule Two?” Cameron asked.
“Well I wanna see it, now.” This came from Micah who was mostly amused by the prank.
“Hey!” Jonah protested.
“Unfortunately, Rule Two is less interesting. Rule Number Two: if you can’t fly well, stay on the ground. You can’t crash if you stay on the ground…usually.”
Jasmine jumped in again: “You said there were laws, too?”
“Oh, yes. There are laws, ma’am: three inviolate decrees higher than any invented by men. They’re Newton’s laws.”
“Oh…wait, what? Aren’t there, like…regular laws about flying too?”
“Nah, we’re basically regulated as light sport craft. The FAA doesn’t really care unless you fly too close to an airport or into a no-fly zone. Now, if you’ll follow me, we’ll move on to the next exercise.”
Caden led the family to the rock-climbing wall at the end of the gym, but this wasn’t a standard rock-climbing wall. It was a craggy, messy-looking slab stretching to the ceiling that looked like it had been cut out of the cheap end of a quarry. And there was no safety harness. “So Jonah, do you know anything about rock climbing?” he asked.
“You ever climb trees?”
“Good. It’s the same principle. I want you to climb the wall and hit the red button at the top.”
“What’s that got to do with flying?”
“Yeah, what does that have to do with flying?” his mother echoed.
“Directly? Not much. But indirectly, it’s essential. Rule One: always pay attention. That applies to climbing just as much as flying.”
“Well, shouldn’t he at least have a harness or something?”
“That’s why I’m here, ma’am. Go ahead; try to climb it.”
Jonah stood before the rock wall, trying to figure out how climbing the shear, nearly-flat face could possibly be similar to climbing the many branches of the trees near his home. Tentatively, he grabbed onto a small outcropping of rock, put his shoe on another, and began to push himself up. Seeing that that worked, he proceeded a little more confidently. In a few steps, he was climbing the wall almost like a ladder. About halfway up, though, just as he called out, “Hey this isn’t so hard,” his foot slipped, and he lost his grip and fell off the way.
“Jonah!” both his parents cried.
With a quick, practiced flick of his wrist, Caden stopped Jonah’s fall, causing him to freeze in midair, upside-down.
“Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Dietrich. I told you I’d catch him. Now Jonah…” At this, Caden lowered him closer, so that they were eye to eye. “What two important things did you just forget?”
“Uh…always pay attention?”
“Yes…more specifically, you forgot to check your foothold. If you don’t have a solid footing, it’s only a matter of time before you fall.”
“What’s the second thing?” asked Jonah.
“You can fly!”
He flipped Jonah over and dropped him the last foot or so onto his feet. “In the event that you are unfortunate enough to actually fall off a cliff, you would do well to remember that.”
“Has that ever happened to you?” Micah said, to a hissed warning from his mother.
“No, but I know this girl from Nevada named Jenna who tried to climb El Capitan at Yosemite… never mind. The point is that flight needs to be an intuitive action. It’s a part of you, and if you can’t call it up automatically as faster or faster than you could jump up and run, you can’t expect to get very good at it. Now would you like to try again?”
It took Jonah several more tries to get all the way up the rock wall, but each of those times, he caught himself with his power when he fell. It also gave Caden a better feel for his powers. Not all telekinetics could lift their own weight, and of those who could, not all could do it for an extended period, just like most normals could only carry something their own weight for so long, but Jonah, as he expected, was definitely one who could.
Caden spent most of the afternoon walking Jonah through a number of exercises involving rock climbing, gymnastics, and even just running. He also gave the boy an overview of Newton’s laws using various props, most notably a game of pool, but the real application would have to wait for tomorrow. Jonah was grumbling by the end of it because none of the exercises involved actually using his power except to catch himself. But he was still learning from the best, and between his tutor and his mother, he wasn’t about to complain too much.
As they wrapped up for the day, Jonah said goodbye to his parents and his brother, and they went home satisfied with the quality of the camp. Jonah, who hadn’t really been to camp before, much less one for supers, was left uneasily wondering what the next day would bring.
“Good morning, Jonah,” Caden said when they met at the gym the next day. “Are you ready to get started?”
“Yeah,” Jonah said, hoping for a more interesting day than yesterday.
“Good. Today, we’ll be moving beyond our simple, on-the-ground exercises, so the first thing we should do is to get an up-to-date test of your telekinetic abilities.”
“I will of course expect you to follow Rule Two unless I say otherwise.”
“Fine,” the boy grumbled.
“First, a strength test.” Caden lifted up a device that was bolted to the wall. A metal handle was attached to what could have been part of a digital grocer’s scale, but was probably far more sophisticated. “In my day, we had to use the regular gym equipment—resistance settings on old exercise machines. Luckily, the Physics Department rigged up something better. This is a high-capacity force gauge. Just pull the handle as hard as you can, telekinetically, and it will measure the amount of force you apply.”
Jonah made a fist with his right hand and pulled it back. The handle rose toward him and began to strain at the scale. The number on the display quickly rose into the hundreds until it stopped at 422.6. Soon, Jonah, trembling from the effort, released his grip, and the device clattered back against the wall.
“422.6 newtons,” confirmed Caden. “That’s about…” he did a quick mental calculation, “ninety—ninety-five pounds-force. That’s pretty good for your size and should increase as you grow. According to Dr. Alvarez, you weigh seventy-eight pounds, so in principle, you could do…um, well I’d need to run some numbers, but probably forty or so miles an hour at a ‘sprint’, which, again, is pretty good for your age.”
Jonah smiled at the praise, and after the drilling yesterday in which the Desert Falcon had shown his tough drill sergeant side, it felt that much better. Said hero led him to another corner of the gym where an elaborate rig stood near a pile of wooden boards and metal scraps with a distinctive shape.
“This is an agility test,” he explained. “It’s essentially a maze in three dimensions, and the object is to move this through it as quickly as possible without it touching the structure.” He held up the object in question. It was an ordinary, store-bought boomerang. “There is only one correct path through the labyrinth, and it requires constant control to complete it successfully. Do you want to try it?”
“Okay,” Jonah said.
“Then begin. I’ll time you.” He handed over the boomerang and held up a stopwatch. “Ready…? Go.”
Jonah levitated the boomerang up to the entrance to the labyrinth and began sliding it through the gaps in the wood and metal scraps, rotating it back and forth and swinging it around corners with awkward stops and too-fast starts. The path was laid out pretty clearly. In most places, there was only one good way to move it forward, but it required a lot of finesse, and Jonah had to proceed very carefully to keep from hitting anything. He actually did bump into the rig several times, which didn’t incur an actual penalty, but the maze seemed to be designed so that every bump and clatter reverberated loudly, so it was very clear what he had done. Needless to say, he grew frustrated very fast.
“Deep breath. Relax that wrist,” Caden said. “Remember, the power comes from the mind. The hand motion is just to help you visualize it. It’s a conductor’s baton, not a joystick.”
“Well, why don’t you try it, then?” Jonah snapped. His concentration broke, and the boomerang tangled noisily in the trusses.
“I already know how to do it,” Caden said with a voice that was only a little stern. He twirled his hand back and forth lazily, and the boomerang leapt back into the air and spun its way out of the labyrinth in seconds. Jonah jaw dropped. “I designed it myself,” Caden told him. “With some help from Lady Daedala.” Lady Daedala’s superpower was engineering. It had taken her years to prove that it was a real power and not just being really smart, but when she scored ten standard deviations above the mean—something that should have been statistically impossible—it was pretty clear. The baffled scientists labeled it as some kind of “mechanical technopathy”.
“Flying may seem simple, but you need finesse,” he continued. “At least as much as parallel parking, for example, which a lot of grown-ups find difficult. And spatial reasoning. This is one of the best ways to build that. So, are you calmed down enough to try again, Jonah?”
Jonah glared at his tutor, but he held his tongue. He could see his point, if reluctantly. He squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and tried it again. This time, he moved the boomerang through the maze in a little under a minute.
“Good. Good. That was better,” Caden said. “Now the other way.”
“Are you serious?” Jonah said.
They stared at each other. He was.
“Fine.” Now that he was getting a feel for the course, he made the return trip in forty-five seconds.
“I already did it!”
“You need practice.”
Jonah grumbled, but he lifted the boomerang again and started passing it through the maze a third time, but this time, Caden made his move. With a flick of his finger, he knocked the boomerang off course so that it clanged against the frame. Jonah lost his concentration and dropped it again. “Hey! You bumped it!” he yelled.
“Well, it wouldn’t be a very realistic test if nothing interfered.”
“But that’s not fair! You didn’t tell me!” Jonah complained.
Caden gave him a stern look that told him he needed to be more sensible. He stretched the silence out for some time before saying, “Life isn’t fair, kid. Isaac Newton doesn’t care if you know what’s going on or not. He’ll get you, anyway. There are always things that can mess you up in midair. It can be bad guys. It can be birds. Most often, it’s a sudden gust of wind that takes you by surprise and blows you off course. You have to learn not to let any of that distract you, or you’re going to get hurt. Now, are you ready to try again?”
“Fine,” sighed Jonah. He readied himself to navigate the labyrinth again, picking up the boomerang telekinetically and levitating it through, turn by turn. It was a lot harder this time, though, but Caden kept bumping it with his own power. And not only that, but he also bumped the rig itself, at one point spun the whole thing completely around, leaving Jonah struggling to catch up, and at the end, levitated the boy himself to distract him. He made it through eventually, but it took a lot longer, and there was a lot of clanging.
“That’s better,” Caden told him. “We’ll be practicing that regularly this summer. I expect you to be able to get through in good time with no mistakes by the end.”
Jonah balked. “This sucks!” he yelled. He threw his hands out, and the boomerang went sailing off and spinning around the gym. He crossed his arms and glared at Caden.
Caden just crossed his arms back as if he was waiting for something.
“Well?” Jonah said.
Caden raised an eyebrow. “Rule one, Jonah,” he reminded him.
The boy looked confused for a split second, but then, his eyes widened, and the boomerang, as it returned, stopped about three feet from the back of his head.
“Better. Let’s take a break. You’ll probably want to relax a little before the next test.”
Somehow, that comment didn’t help Jonah relax, but he managed it anyway. When he thought about it, he could certainly see where Caden was coming from. He was the one with years of experience. That didn’t mean he had to like it, though.
Things didn’t get much better when they came back from their break and started the next exercise. “We’re going to take a little break from the flying-related skills—” Caden started.
“We haven’t even been flying!” Jonah protested.
He crossed his arms: “You ever seen The Karate Kid, kid?”
“You remember ‘wax on, wax off’?”
“Uh, no,” Jonah said like he was being stupid.
“Oh, sorry. You must’ve seen the new one. I believe it’s now…um, ‘Jacket on. Jacket off. Put it on the ground. Pick it up. Hang it up. Take it down.’”
“Oh,” he said, remembering, now.
“Do you remember Rule Two?”
“Stay on the ground until you can fly well,” Jonah groaned.
“Exactly,” Caden said. “But there’s a broader sense to it. You have to practice everything. Master all aspects of your power. Be able to use it in ways that would still impress people if you were a mundane human using your hands. That is how you really become good at flying.”
“But you said this wasn’t—”
He let the silence stretch, waiting to see if Jonah would speak out again. After he decided it was long enough, he said, “There is more to telekinesis than just flying, but all kinds of practice will help your flying, especially if you mix it up regularly. I don’t beat bad guys—who usually have guns—by swooping down on their heads. I need to be able to handle small objects with great precision, or I can make a mess of things at best and get myself killed at worst. It’s not even as simple as pulling their guns away from them, because most of the gangs around here thought of that years ago and wear them on straps. But I can do things like locking up the triggers or sliding out the firing pins, making them useless. And even if you’re not going up against gangs—even if you never become a superhero and become an aerial photographer or an ornithologist instead—this is still good for precision flying, and it helps you refine your sixth sense.
“You know,” he added. “By Mr. Han’s standards, I’m going easy on you. I’m actually telling you what this stuff is for.”
“Alright, alright. What do I do?” Jonah said.
“Have a seat over here.” Caden led the boy to a table on which lay an anti-static cloth with about twenty small electronic components and a couple dozen screws on it, laid out in perfect order. “This is an iPhone 5C, fully disassembled. These are instructions for how to reassemble it.” He set down several pages of Ikea-style instructions on how to put the pieces back together. “I want you to assemble the iPhone without touching anything.”
“You want me to do this?” asked Jonah, motioning to the instructions.”
Caden answered, “I can do it in about five minutes. Once you get the hang of turning the screws it’s…have you ever tried turning screws, Jonah?”
“Well, just give it a try. Try not to strip the threads. Even if you can’t manage that, you can probably at least get the phone to turn on when you’re done.”
“Hmm…” Slowly, Jonah leaned forward and looked down at the array of pieces on the table. He found two that were shown in the first diagram of the instructions and levitated them about as near as he could stand to his eyes. Lining them up (and, to Caden’s surprise, having little trouble holding them as a single unit), he then levitated a screw and attempted to turn it into the hole.
The screws, of course, were quite small and required great finesse to handle at all. To simply hold them in place was not difficult, but their lightness made it hard to sense them, even while seeing them close up, and it was hard keep a telekinetic grip. Jonah struggled to hold the first screw steady enough to align it with the hole. When he tried to turn it, it slipped out and tumbled in a small circle. Trying again, he discovered after a couple of turns that it was crooked, and he sloppily pushed it back upright with a tiny crack. Then, when he screwed it in all the way, he was unsure how tight it was and over-tightened it with a miniscule grinding sound.
“Uh oh. Is that bad?”
“It’ll still run. Keep going.”
Jonah looked at the next panel of the instructions and continued working. It was tedious work, especially for a novice with little interest in the inner workings of electronics. However, he kept at it, gradually improving his prowess with screws and latches until about a half hour later, when he snapped and screwed the two halves of the case together and pressed the power button.
The screen lit up in white, but it just stayed there: the White Screen of Death.
“Aw, man!” Jonah whined. “I thought I had it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Caden reassured his as he picked up the phone. “It was a good first try. This is pretty common when the hardware gets knocked around. Usually just have to reboot it…” He frowned as rebooting didn’t fix the problem. He’d been watching Jonah the whole time, and it had looked like the boy was doing it right. “Well, I’ll just have Adeline fix it later,” he decided.
They moved on to a final station in the gym, this one also little more than a table.
“Alright, Jonah,” he said, “this is the final test: coordination. Have you ever tried juggling.”
“That’s fine because this isn’t juggling, but it’s close. The idea is to keep a large number of objects in the air at once. I don’t recommend doing that while flying, but again, it’s good practice. We’ll be using tennis balls today. Personally, I prefer something with a little more weight like racquetballs or billiard balls, but that can go wrong for beginners.”
He wound up and threw one of the tennis balls at Jonah as hard as he could, but Jonah was watching and threw up his hand to freeze it a fair distance from his head, suppressing a snicker at the obviousness of the move.
“Good catch,” Caden complemented him. “Now move it in a circle like this.” He demonstrated by moving a tennis ball of his own clockwise with a twirl of his right hand.
Jonah, of course, did not think to reverse the situation and moved his ball counterclockwise with a wider turn of his left hand, but his mentor ignored that. “Now, we add a second ball.” Caden demonstrated by turning a second tennis ball counterclockwise with his left hand then tossed it to Jonah, who turned it clockwise with his right hand in sync with the first.
“Now, watch me, and follow my lead.” He then turned his hands to send the balls on looping paths off to his sides. Jonah tried to mimic him, but he was sloppier about it, throwing his whole arms out to his sides to keep his hands close to the balls. Caden ignored this as well; they would worry about technique later. Instead, he kept going, leading the boy through several more choreographed moves, spinning both balls over his head, one over his head and one to the side, one over his head and one in front of him in a face-on circle, and so on. He made it more challenging by moving the revolutions out of phase with each other, forcing Jonah to control his balls independently. Then, Caden moved his hands so that the paths of the balls overlapped in two face-on, intersecting circles in front of him, but timed so that they didn’t collide. Jonah mimicked all of it.
“Now for three,” he said. He physically picked up another tennis ball with his hand, while still maintaining the motion of the other two, and placed it on one of the two circular paths he was maintaining. The result was not quite juggling, because control of the balls never switched hands, but it looked similar. He passed a third ball to Jonah, who incorporated it, with difficulty, into his own pattern. He became visibly agitated as his circles turned into parabolic arcs. It made him look even more like a juggler, but to Caden’s trained eye, it proved that the boy couldn’t keep control of them at all times.
“And one more.” Caden easily added a fourth ball to his pattern, but when he passed one to Jonah, the boy had considerable difficulty. He began simply giving the balls upward thrusts to keep them aloft, but this caused them to go wide, which only lead to him making wilder and wilder throws to keep a hold of them, and in a few moments, all four balls went bouncing to the floor, leaving the boy very frustrated.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Caden calmed him. “You are making the same rookie mistake you were before.”
“You are relying too much on your hands.”
“When you pulled the spring scale, you made a fist and pulled it toward you. When I asked you to guide the boomerang through that labyrinth, you turned your hands like you were physically holding it. Now, when I tell you to juggle tennis balls, you move your hands in a circle. You’re guiding the motion strictly with your hands, but I told you before, your power comes from your mind. Use your hands to help you focus—not to control every aspect of it. If you try to control the motion of four objects at once in detail, you’re over-thinking it, and you won’t be able to do it. And if you’re in the air, not being able to do something you need to is a bad situation.”
“I’m not gonna be juggling in midair,” Jonah protested.
“But you might need to carry things in the air,” Caden said. “It’s best practice to physically hold onto whatever you’re carrying, but that’s not always possible. Now, if you’re trying to multi-task, you should,’t try to control more than two independent motions besides your own while you’re flying. Even I don’t do that unless I absolutely have to. But that doesn’t mean that you’re limited to two objects. Watch this.” He levitated twelve tennis balls in two interlocking hexagons in front of him, spinning them with perfect timing so that they passed through each other like the teeth of invisible gears and building up to a dizzying speed with only a slight twirl of his hands.
“Wow! How’d you do that?”
“By simplifying it. I formed the two hexagons first and then held their shape so that I could think of them as two solid objects. Holding a shape like this isn’t very difficult. Once you do that, it’s easy to turn them with the right timing so none of the balls bump into each other. And take notice that I barely needed to use my hands. It was almost all by visualization. If there’s one exercise here that I want you to practice, it’s this one. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Jonah said.
“Good. You can take a break, now. That’s all the testing I needed. There are a few more seminars happening today, and then you’ll be able to do some more fun things at three. Promise.”
Jonah was skeptical about Caden’s promise, but this time, he wasn’t disappointed. At three o’clock, a fraction of the trainees and their mentors and some of the older students who happened to be in the neighborhood gathered together in the gym. There were some big names, too. Roadrunner was there, with his trainee. So was Flash Flood from Tuscon, with hers. Jumping Mouse, of all people, was there from Phoenix, as well as one of the several Native American superheroes who was negotiating for the name Coyote and was currently going by Presto Chango, and there were still others whom Jonah didn’t recognise, but the Desert Falcon clearly did. Not all of the mentors were superheroes, as not all had powers that were conducive to any kind of law enforcement work, but Caden had picked the cream of the crop for this group.
There was also Adeline, the eight-year-old technopath, and her sixteen-year-old trainee, who still didn’t look thrilled with her situation. Adeline was wearing a fancy-looking heads-up display in a pair of glasses. Caden motioned Jonah and the other eight trainees to the centre of the gym—five boys and four girls, all middle school-aged. “All right, everybody line up,” he told them. “You too, Jonah. I want to thank you again for coming. I hope you’re all having a good time. We may be intense about training here, but we also know how to have some fun. I picked this group because all of your powers should be good to make this especially interesting…The name of the game is dodgeball.”
Some excited whispers rippled through the line for a moment until Caden motioned for them to quiet down. Even Jonah looked happy about this development.
“Standard rules apply,” he explained. “If you get hit with a ball, you’re out, but not if it bounces off of anything or if it’s a headshot. If you catch a ball, the thrower is out, also not on a bounce. However, there are a few special rules for this group. First off, and this may change, later, stay on the ground at all times: not all of you can fly, climb walls, or anything like that, so it’s fairer that way. You can throw the balls any way you want, but you must catch with your hands to get the thrower out. At the start of the game, you must also pick them up with your hands. Adeline will be the referee, and her glasses compute trajectories based on physics in real time, so she will know if you break the rules.”
He backed away from the line, and Adeline stepped forward with a rack of rubber playground balls. “Ready!” she called out. “Four balls, every man for himself. Go!” she quickly threw four balls toward the four corners of the gym, and each of the nine players ran for the nearest corner.
Jonah wasn’t fast on his feet, being one of the younger players and not being allowed to leave the ground. He only made it a few steps before his sixth sense kicked in and told him there was a ball flying at his back at a very high speed. He spun around, intending to send it back at its thrower, but it happened too fast, and with a swing of his arm, he deflected it so that it bounced high off the wall of the gym. Roadrunner’s trainee was dominating the competition and had already knocked out two players by the time Jonah got his bearings. Fortunately, the speedster wasn’t wearing a super suit, so he could only manage a few seconds of super speed before the friction started to chafe him.
The other players weren’t totally helpless, either. The balls could go on wild bouncing and looping paths under the influence of various powers for a long time without hitting anyone. Flash Flood’s trainee could knock them off course with a blast of water, with the added bonus of making the floor slippery, which was bad news for the speedster, Roberto. Jumping Mouse’s trainee would put any gymnast to shame and had only to touch a ball to swing it around her body and back at the thrower. One very giggly girl of about twelve could seemingly make balls change direction instantly with a snap of her fingers—a level of fine control that no telekinetic could match. Jonah only found out later that she was Presto Chango’s trainee and was making two balls swap places while keeping the same speed.
It would have been a pretty even match for the most part, but despite their defenses, Roberto was outclassing all of them. Jonah was relying on his small size, ducking and dodging, and deflecting balls that came close to him, but he just couldn’t keep up. It seemed like there were more than four balls flying around, and before he knew it, one of them hit him in the butt hard enough to send him sprawling on the floor. It wasn’t much longer before everyone else was out, too, leaving only Roberto standing.
Adeline didn’t comment on the result. She just started another game. This time, everyone was thinking the same thing: get Roberto out first.
Jonah got off to a good start this time. He couldn’t pick up a ball first, but the rules didn’t say he couldn’t reach out and control one. He snatched one out of its path and directed it to follow Roberto around. The other three balls kept being thrown in Roberto’s direction, forcing him to dodge, and having to pause for even half a second between bouts of super speed put him at serious risk. Teamwork definitely held the advantage here. Roberto was on the defensive, although he was still impossible to catch.
It was the giggling girl, Angela, who finally pulled it off, but only with some help. She positioned herself directly across from the second-fastest thrower in the gym, Liam, who had super strength, and at a right angle to Jonah. When Liam threw a ball, Roberto dodged and it flew straight at Angela’s head, but she just turned and winked at Jonah, and suddenly, the ball he was controlling to follow Roberto, which the speedster kept dodging, swapped places with the one flying at her head. It swerved and hit Roberto from less than two feet away.
With that problem taken care of, it was every man for himself. Jonah stayed in for more than half the game this time. Like most of the players, he was knocked out of the game when he was distracted by two balls being thrown at him at once. They played two more games after that, with Roberto sitting out, since they knew how it would go if he played again. Roadrunner had a talk with him, and he seemed to accept it graciously. In every game, there was a different winner, so they seemed otherwise well-matched. Jonah didn’t win, but he put in a good showing each time.
“Good job,” Caden told him when it was over. “You’ve got some good moves there. By the time you get to middle school you should really be competitive. And good job, everyone,” he addressed the group. “Great skills. Good sportsmanship—I’m always glad to see a group like that. This is all for today unless your mentor’s planned something extra. Have a nice day, and don’t forget the seminar about the U.N. tomorrow.”
He dismissed the group, and they all left one by one, and then he walked over to the one small girl who remained. “Hey Adeline, would you mind taking a look at this phone?” he said. “Jonah assembled it, but I keep getting the White Screen of Death. I even opened it up again, but I couldn’t find the problem.”
“Alright, let’s take a look,” she sighed. At her age especially, she got touchy about people abusing technology like most little girls were protective of small, furry animals. Working at what seemed like an impossible pace, she unscrewed the back of the phone and examined the electronics inside. “Well, he’s assembled correctly…but wow, someone really hurt him.”
Caden rolled his eyes. “Adeline, you know that phone has as much brains as a honeybee,” he said.
“He still deserves proper respect,” she shot back, trying to sound adult. She reinstalled the battery and then forced the phone to reactivate while still opened up. “You really need to be more careful with your technology.” Caden really didn’t appreciate being lectured by an eight-year-old, but he just rolled his eyes. The white screen persisted. “No, no, no, it’s no good. His firmware is shot,” she said. “This is major surgery. Did you let Riley get a hold of him?” Riley was the only superhuman currently on campus who could control electricity. Adeline couldn’t stand her.
“How should I know? I don’t control everything around here.”
“You should. She’s my archenemy.”
“She is not your archenemy, sis. You can’t both be good guys and be archenemies. And need I remind you, Mom told you you’re not allowed to have an archenemy until you’re sixteen?” That still sounded ridiculous every time he said it.
“Fine, but if I find out she’s been messing with my stuff, she’s getting DDoSed.”
Jonah was allowed to rest for the remainder of the day. Younger supers often couldn’t use their power all day without tiring, and even Caden felt at least as tired from flying all day as he did from walking all day. The next morning, though, it was back to training. Today, most of the stations and the foam blocks were gone, as they had been for the dodgeball game, but they had been replaced with a number of large boxes, each one about the size of a person and loaded down with various weights raided from the weight room. They were all set up on wheels taken from rolling chairs and kept well-oiled so they could roll smoothly in any direction. Jonah and Caden both stood on the floor in custom-built roller skates, which also had wheels that could turn in any direction.
“Jonah…” Caden said with extra fanfare when they arrived, “welcome to Newton’s Playground.”
“So…why’re we wearing these weird roller skates?” he asked.
“This is a two-dimensional flight simulator meant to replicate the most important physics of flying while staying on the ground. In the air, all of the friction comes from air resistance. The skates simulate this by minimizing friction from the ground. No friction and random obstacles are two of the biggest problems you’ll encounter while flying. Now, I told you about Newton’s laws yesterday, right?”
“What are they?”
“Um, an object in motion stays in motion and an object at rest stays at rest unless acted on by an outside force,” Jonah’s said with the tone of boring rote memorization.
“Good. More specifically, if there is no net force, all objects will move in a straight line and a constant speed, or just stay put, which is really the same thing when you learn about relativity. So what is a force?”
“Like a…push or pull?”
“Yes. And there are three specific forces that are important in flying. First, there’s the gravitational force, which always pulls straight down. Gravity is easy to handle, although you have to worry about it at all times. Then there’s air resistance, which is much more complicated, but, in general, pushes opposite to the direction you’re moving, plus the wind drift. And the third force, of course, is this one.” Caden held up his hand in a simulated shove, and Jonah began rolling rapidly backward.
“Hey!” The boy initially pushed back at Caden in retaliation, but that only made him roll back faster, so he quickly switched to pushing off the wall behind him and began to roll forward again.
“Okay, okay, that was a little sneaky,” Caden admitted. “But it illustrated my first point. Go ahead and take another shove at me.”
Jonah didn’t stop to consider what that meant. He just raised both hands and tried to push Caden back. That partly worked, but he still found himself rolling backwards again even faster. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he cried, struggling to steady himself.
“Jonah, what’s Newton’s Second Law?” Caden asked once he had stopped.
“Uh, force equals mass times acceleration.”
“Good. And Newton’s Third Law?”
“For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.”
“Excellent. Now…can you explain what just happened?”
Jonah screwed up his face in concentrtion. “Well, uh…when I pushed you, there was a reaction that pushed me back away from you.”
“And?” Caden pressed.
“And uh, I guess, if there’s an equal force, I got…uh, more acceleration, and I rolled away faster?”
“Yes. That’s the kind of thinking I want to see. With telekinesis, you’re probably used to moving small objects with a small amount of force, and with flying you’re getting used to moving yourself by pushing off the ground with a large amount of force. But you have not had much experience moving objects that are large, but not as large as, you know, the Earth—objects like other people. You may have superpowers, but like I told you yesterday, you still have to obey Newton’s Laws. Even with telekinesis, if you exert a force on something, an equal and opposite force will be exerted on you. Normally, the friction of your shoes stops you from going flying, but the roller skates have almost no friction, so when you pushed me, you rolled across the floor. And since I weigh twice as much as you, I only rolled half as fast. And most importantly, the same thing will happen when you’re flying, except in three dimensions, and with gravity, so you need to learn to deal with it now.”
“So how do ya’ do that?” Jonah demanded.
“You already have the idea. Brace yourself by pushing against the floor or the wall in the other direction to keep yourself in the air—”
“Really? Like this?” Jonah struck a pose with one hand in front of him and one behind him. Caden was suddenly pushed backward, struggling to stay on balance, while Jonah stayed in place. “Ha! Gotcha!” he exclaimed in triumph.
“Whoa! Okay, you got me. But you are starting to catch on.” Caden pushed himself back to his starting position. “It’s the same in the air. Even if you’re high up and can’t reach the ground with your power, you can push off the air itself. Now, here’s another example. Push me again without bracing yourself.”
“Fine.” Jonah began pushing again, he slid backward for a just a moment before Caden stopped him with another gesture.
“I’m pulling you toward me,” he said. “Can you feel that?”
Jonah paused, sensing the balance of forces around him. “Uh huh.”
“But I’m pulling you in the same direction you’re pushing me.”
“So why aren’t we moving?”
“Because you’re bracing us off the floor,” the boy said, thinking it obvious.
“No. I’m actually not.”
“No, I’m not. It’s because of Newton’s Third Law. Can you see how that works?”
“I don’t know…um, I push you with a force, and that pushes me with a reaction…oh! And that equals you pulling on me.”
“Very good. Both of us are subjected to equal, balanced forces. I’m bracing you by pulling you while you’re pushing me, and vice versa, so we don’t move. That’s enough.” He released his pull, and Jonah wobbled for a moment before he broke off his push. “The main point of this exercise is to learn to navigate around large objects that aren’t nailed down and can move around on their own. That’ll usually be just birds, but it’s good to know. Now think fast! He pulled one of the rolling boxes from his left toward Jonah. The boy swatted it away, but instead rolling away, it toppled over.
“Not so high!” Caden said. “Good reaction time, but you need to push near the bottom or preferably over the entire height of the box. If you just apply a force to one part of it, it will start spinning or fall over instead of rolling.”
“Now, another application of Newton’s First and Third Laws: try moving that box around you in a circle.”
Jonah carefully pushed the box sideways to him, but it quickly slid away from him as he also rolled in the opposite direction. Pulling it toward him, he managed to curve it into a crude arc. Caden just nodded and motioned for him to keep trying. In a little while, he found by trial and error how to move the box in a steady circle about twenty feet wide. Since the box was about as heavy as he was, Jonah spun around on a similar circle, speeding up until he revolved in a complete circle every few seconds, using most of his strength to do so, at which point he let it go to roll into the side wall and went spinning away awkwardly himself.
“Okay…” Caden said with a chuckle. “I think you get the idea there. What direction did you have to pull to do that?”
“Straight toward me.”
“Yes. The box will keep going on its own, but it’s going to go in a straight line unless you apply a force in a different direction—in this case, towards you. It’s just like planets orbiting the sun, even though the gravity is straight toward the sun. Now keep those things in mind as you run the course.”
Caden led Jonah through an assortment of exercises weaving between boxes of various weights. In many cases, the boy made wide circular arcs around them, but he often swung too wide or too narrow, not knowing their weight, and bumped into other boxes. Caden frequently moved the boxes themselves in various ways or pushed Jonah off course. The boy seemed on the verge of losing control half the time, but he gradually improved as he got the hang of the course. Jonah was starting to be able to navigate it without making a fool of himself when Caden decided to take a break.
After their break, he lead Jonah away from the gym for their next exercise. “We’re not done with Newton’s Playground yet,” he explained. “Not by a long shot. We’ll be doing a lot more of that over the summer so you can practice, but I think you’re ready for some simple actual flight exercises.”
“Awesome!” Jonah yelled. It took him a minute longer to realise where they were. “Why aren’t we going outside?”
“Oh, no. I didn’t say outside,” Caden told him. “Even in the air, you need to start someplace where you don’t have room to build up a lot of speed and altitude.” Jonah groaned, but he ignored him. “Someplace like this.” He opened an ornate pair of double doors, revealing an unusual room. It was far more homely than most of the rooms in the building with their tile floors and hard seats, but this room it went to the opposite extreme. The floor, the walls, and even the ceiling were all carpeted; and the lights were sunk into the walls. All of the furniture in the room consisted of plush couches and chairs with no tables or appliances. “This is an indoor flight training room,” he explained. “It’s more or less equivalent to a room that you might fly through in a house, but it’s designed so you can run into things without getting hurt.”
“Mom doesn’t let me fly in the house,” he said.
“Because you’ve broken things, right?” he said. Jonah nodded. “That’s exactly why we’re doing this. It’ll make it easier to fly around without breaking things.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” Jonah asked.
“For now, just go in there and fly a few circles.”
Excited to finally get to do some flying, Jonah entered the room, and Caden closed the door behind them. At once, Jonah concentrated, mentally “pushing” against the floor, and rose up into the air. When his head was near the carpeted ceiling, he began to push at a slight angle and glided forward. He passed over the furniture without any apparent trouble, until one of the chairs flipped over backward, and he dropped about two feet and spun to the side. But he took no heed; he struggled to right himself and quickly turned back to continue circling the room. Almost immediately, a couch slid away from him, and he fell again as if he had stumbled. He stayed in the air for a moment, but he overcompensated too high and too fast and nearly bumped against the ceiling. His flight went wild, and after a couple more chaotic circuits, he plunged headlong into one of the couches with a yelp. The sofa tilted back and teetered for a moment before falling backward with a soft thud.
“Alright, Jonah, now—”
SLAM! “This sucks!” Jonah yelled, throwing the doors open telekinetically.
“Jonah—” Caden said.
“I’m outta here!” Jonah stomped out of the room.
“Jonah, just wait a minute—” Caden rushed out to follow him, but the boy was already airborne and picking up speed towards the exit of the building. He stopped just long enough to say to himself, “And he’s gonna fly away. Great.” And he took to the air after him.
But he hesitated before dragging Jonah back to the testing area. Maybe it would be better to let the boy vent his anger first. He’d come here expecting to learn to fly, and Caden had been keeping him in a cage so far. In retrospect, Jonah had clearly been to fly away like this since yesterday morning. By the time he reached the outer doors of the building, Caden had decided to just follow him and catch when he screwed up—and he would.
They both flew outside, and Jonah rose higher and flew away as fast as he could. But of course Caden, not needing to use most of his strength to hold himself in the air, could fly a lot faster. He soon caught up to his charge, but he kept himself below and behind the boy, about twenty feet from the ground, to keep his presence from being noticed as long as possible.
Fortunately, Jonah wasn’t trying any stunts right now. He was just storming out in a rage and going for a fly to calm down. At least, that’s what Caden hoped he was doing. He wasn’t a telepath. If he did try to do some stunts, or he had some other motive in mind, there might be bigger problems.
The main problem was that Jonah wasn’t really prepared to focus on flying continuously, and a split-second lapse could see him falling out of the sky. His flight was unsteady and faltering, but he was doing surprisingly well, all things considered, flying steady and staying above all the buildings, trees, and power lines. The boy had a good sense of direction. He was heading south toward the Oak Creek Canyon, about ten miles away at its nearest point. He was making good time, too, quickly pushing himself to his top speed of forty miles per hour, not that he could keep that up for very long, yet.
In his anger, it took Jonah several minutes before he was aware enough of his surroundings to notice a human-sized object keeping pace with him in the air behind him. In other words, he was breaking Rules One and Two. When he finally caught on, he turned around and looked, and promptly dropped about ten feet before he caught himself. “Oh, come on!” he shouted.
“I’m not about to let you fly off on your own, Jonah,” Caden called back over the wind.
“Just leave me alone! This whole thing’s stupid!”
“I told you this wouldn’t be easy, but I am trying to help.”
“Ha! Yeah, right. See, I’m flying just fine now.”
“Come on, Jonah, we both know I can fly circles around you,” Caden said, and he proceeded to do just this, swinging around in front of the boy.
“Out of my way!” Jonah yelled. He gave Caden a telekinetic shove, pushing him to the side, but, forgetting Newton’s Third Law again, Jonah went reeling harder the other way, tumbling through the air. Losing his bearings, he pushed himself toward the ground by accident.
“Crap,” Caden muttered under his breath. He reached out with his own power and pulled Jonah back, slowing his fall, using his own body as a counterweight. Jonah’s head stopped a good few feet from the ground, but far too close for comfort. By then, Caden was already pushing off the ground to slow his own descent, and once he was stopped, he pulled Jonah back up to eye level.
“You can fly just fine, huh?” he asked.
“You were in my way,” Jonah objected.
“That was a rookie mistake,” Caden said. “In a business where rookie mistakes can get you killed. Do you know how many people got hurt by their own powers in the early days?”
“Uh, I think there were some.”
“More like a lot. More than I told you about. Half the reason for the APA is to stop that from happening. I told you this wouldn’t be easy…” Caden trailed off. Being a tough trainer was one thing, but there were more constructive ways to deal with this than just chewing out his charge, he realised. “Come on,” he said.
“We’re going for a fly.”
“Yes.” Caden pulled Jonah onto his back, piggyback-style.
“Hey, I don’t need to do that,” the boy protested.
“There’s less air resistance this way. Don’t argue…And hold on tight.”
Jonah grudgingly wrapped his arms around Caden’s neck, and then, he gripped a lot tighter and screamed as Caden pushed off and accelerated to over a hundred miles per hour. “Okay, okay, too fast! Too fast!” he cried.
“Nonsense! We’re only going in a straight line!” Caden yelled back.
They were far from any obstacles; there was nothing difficult about the flight, but Jonah still wasn’t prepared for this kind of speed, or the fact that they were slowly climbing. They were well over a hundred feet up already.
“Alright! I get it! I need to practice more!” Jonah said.
“Who said anything about that? You were going to Oak Creek, weren’t you? I’m just getting you there faster.”
“I’m fine! We can go back!”
Caden didn’t listen. At that speed, they made the north end of the Oak Creek Canyon in about five minutes. It was a lot smaller than the Grand Canyon—only about a thousand feet deep, not as steep, and the walls covered with scattered trees, but it was a lot closer to the city and more convenient. Caden slowed to a stop and descended to the lip of the canyon. When he dropped Jonah off, the boy collapsed, hugging the ground.
“Are you crazy?!” Jonah screamed.
“Not at all. I know precisely what I’m doing. From your mood and the fact that you flew off like that, I figured you needed to get away someplace like this and sit for a while to calm down, so I helped you out.”
“I get it, okay? I learned my lesson. I need to practice my flying more, like you said.”
“Yes, you do, but this isn’t about teaching you a lesson.”
Jonah stared at him. “Huh?”
“If this was about teaching you a lesson, I could have just caught you when you screwed up, yelled at you a bit, and dragged you back to the university. But then you would’ve grumbled your way through the training, only done just well enough to get by, and been a lot more likely to screw up again. So this is really about trust and understanding.”
Jonah was still clueless. “Huh?”
“Come on, have a seat.” Caden walked to the edge of the cliff and sat with his feet hanging over the edge. Jonah was more hesitant, but he approached the edge and sat beside him, not quite at arm’s length. They sat there, gazing out at the canyon without speaking for a couple of minutes. Then, still not looking at the boy, he said, “Contrary to what you may think, Jonah, I don’t enjoy giving you a hard time.”
He turned just in time to see Jonah shoot him a scathing look.
“Okay, maybe a little. But I’d much rather see you become the best flier you can. You have it in you to be a good one.”
Jonah grunted in response.
“You asked me two days ago whether you could become a better flier than I am,” he continued. That wasn’t quite right. He knew full well that Jonah had said “as strong as you”, but that wasn’t the point he was making. Either way, it got the boy’s attention. He turned back to him with a questioning look.
“Easily,” Caden said.
Jonah’s eyes almost popped out of his head.
“I just saw you fly. I saw how powerful you are at your age. When you’re my age, you have the potential to be a professional—maybe even the next Desert Falcon.”
“What?” he gasped. “But you—”
“Superheroing is a young person’s game, Jonah. It’s like sports. Between age and wanting to settle down and not worry about bad guys, we start retiring at thirty. You have it in you to be maybe the best in Arizona, but you have to want it. You have to want it enough to do all the stupid drills I set for you and like it, because that’s the only way to become truly great at it. And the only way you can hope to go toe to toe with a big time supervillain.”
Jonah was silent. It was a dream come true for him that the Desert Falcon would regard him as anything like an equal, but with the way the training had been going so far, the way looked a lot steeper than it did before.
Caden waited for Jonah to respond for a few minutes, gazing out over the canyon. The boy was silent for so long that he was about to speak again, but he finally asked, “Did you do all this when you started flying?”
“I did some,” Caden said. “Not as much as I should have, though.”
“How much do you remember about Dire Wolf, Jonah?”
He brightened at once. Superhuman trivia got most kids excited “He was a really nasty drug lord here in Flagstaff,” he said. “He tried to take over the city, and he kept saying he’d destroy everything if anyone tried to stop him, but you found him and stopped him.”
“Yes, yes, that’s basically right. Do you remember how I caught Dire Wolf?”
“Or should I say, do you remember where I caught him?”
“Yeah, it was at the power plant. I read all about it. It sounds like a pretty cool fight. You chased him all over and chained him up in the machinery.”
Caden sighed. It seemed like no one ever understood. “Let me tell you how it really is,” he said. “A superhero-supervillain battle isn’t as ‘cool’ as it looks in the movies when you’re in the middle of one. It’s nothing more than a glorified schoolyard fight. We live in an age where carefully measured police response is the norm, but it still comes to blows with us because the police simply aren’t equipped to respond.
“Now, Dire Wolf. Most real-life supervillains fall into one of three categories: gang leaders, terrorists, and mentally ill. Dire Wolf was a little of all three. He was a drug lord who controlled most of Arizona. He showed no remorse for killing anyone who got in his way, and he used terror to tighten his hold on the territory, until he was starting to exert more influence than the city government. He threatened that if we tried to take him down, he’d destroy all the infrastructure in the city—electricity, water supply, sewers, cell phones towers, Internet cables—he even threatened to tear down the hospital if we came after him.”
“Damn, how’d you get out of that?” Jonah said.
“Don’t let your parents hear you talking like that, kid. Obviously, we don’t negotiate with terrorists, so we mounted an operation to stop him and his henchmen. City police, Sheriff’s Department, Department of Public Safety, and almost every adult superhuman in the city who wasn’t already in Dire Wolf’s camp. They all split up to cover all of the infrastructure targets and catch the rest of the gang, and then I went after Dire Wolf myself. I had backup, of course, but honestly, they didn’t do much besides slow me down—literally. I could fly a lot faster than they could drive.
“Dire Wolf himself was at the power plant. Smart move, too. It’s a toss-up between that and the water supply if you want to do the most long-term damage. Our plan wasn’t hard to figure out, so he was waiting for me, which gave him the advantage. I’m sure you know what his power is.”
“Yeah. Super strength. But you’re telekinetic, though.”
“Yes, I’m telekinetic, but my powers have limits, and he was no pushover. For one, super strength also means super-tough. It has to. Human bones can’t take more than about three times our normal strength, so his have to be a lot tougher. He’s not quite bullet-proof, but you wouldn’t want to go up against him with just a nine millimeter. So that was problem number one. I couldn’t just snap his neck from a distance, even if I’d wanted to.”
“Problem number two—the part people always forget—is that super strength also means super speed. Speed against air resistance is the square root of strength, and it’s even faster in close quarters because acceleration is directly proportional to strength. He nearly got me when I first showed up that way. Problem number three: jumping height, throwing power, things like that? They’re also directly proportional to strength. There’s a lot more to it than hitting hard and lifting heavy objects.”
“Yikes!” Jonah said in spite of himself. “So…that’s why you were talking about understanding people’s powers?”
“That’s part of it,” Caden said, and his smiled a little. Jonah was starting to catch on, but he needed to drive it home. “The thing was, I could catch Dire Wolf easy enough, but I couldn’t hold him. Even levitating him in midair, I couldn’t manage to put him in cuffs. And I’m a good guy, so I couldn’t just shoot him or choke him out or something if I already had him pinned. That meant anytime I brought him close enough to touch him, I was giving him another opportunity to use his strength to force his way out. And it didn’t help that he always seemed to have another knife or something on him to throw at me and distract my attention. Remember dodging flying objects? Juggling multiple objects in the air? I wasn’t as good as I should have been going into that fight. I took a flying switchblade to the arm.”
He rolled back his sleeve, revealing a pale scar about two inches long carved into his forearm. Jonah gasped. Even after twenty years and more than a few deaths on the job, it was still so easy to think of superheroes as invincible, or at least never suffering permanent harm, like in the comic books. But they were still human. When they got hurt, it left scars. Jonah was probably more horrified than he had a right to be when he saw that his hero wasn’t able to fly away from that fight unscathed.
“It was good I blocked it when I did, or it would have hit my face,” Caden went on, looking serious. “It was sloppy. It was a rookie mistake, and it could have been a lot worse.”
“But…but…it doesn’t look that bad,” Jonah said.
“Doesn’t matter. You can’t afford mistakes like that. Supervillains are known for unusual and illegal weapons. This is a superhero thing more than a flying thing, yes, but take it to heart just the same. Dire Wolf only used a knife because if went with his predator motif. But it could easily have been poisoned. It could have been a grenade. It could have been something that did a lot more damage, and if I’d been better at dodging and juggling, I could have avoided it entirely.”
“The reason that fight went so long is that it took a lot of effort to hold him telekinetically—a lot more than a normal person, and any small distraction could give him room to break out. We weren’t just at the power plant. Were inside the power plant. Pipes, duct works, and scaffolding everywhere—big heavy stuff that I couldn’t safely punch through. Dire Wolf slipped out of my grip and started swinging through the place like a monkey. I had to follow in the air. There was barely room to maneuver. I couldn’t keep up with him. He could come swinging at me out of the pipe works, hit me, and get out of there before I could grab him. I didn’t have enough agility. If I could have navigated the pipes works better, I could have caught him a lot sooner. Instead, he had time to deploy his trap.
“He’d already done a number on the power plant when I got there. I didn’t realize when I was chasing him that he was leading me deeper and deeper into the facility, where he had ripped out a bunch of live wires to make a makeshift cage, and because I wasn’t paying enough attention to my surroundings, I got stuck inside it. I had to figure out how to take the whole electrical system apart and put it back together to get out. Fine detail work. I couldn’t just muscle my way through, or I could have shorted out the whole plant. Who knows, maybe even blown up the transformer bank, which was exactly what Dire Wolf wanted. And in the meantime, I was a sitting duck.”
“How did you get out?” Jonah asked with wide eyes.
“Just like I said. I had to undo the cage. I took a chance sending some of the wires straight to ground. Dire Wolf had done enough damage in there already that I had to accept the chance that we might lose the plant anyway, but I got lucky again, and nothing blew up.
“We went back and forth through the guts of the power plant. It was almost like a Tom and Jerry cartoon for a while. I could never catch him, and he kept throwing things at me. And it just got more dangerous as time went on because he kept smashing up the place. He would cut through steam pipes and try to blast me in the face, for one. As it was, I got burns all up my left arm.” He rolled up his other sleeve and showed where there were still a few whitish patches of scar tissue. Jonah gasped and grimaced at the sight.
“One more reason to retire early,” Caden said. “No one ever said this was an easy job. Every time Dire Wolf cut a pipe or a railing or a support beam, it got harder to fly in there. It wasn’t easy to see what was still attached properly and what would give way the second I put any weight on it. That happened several times, and I hit my head pretty hard on one of them. If I’d hit a sharp edge instead of a pipe, I’d have been finished. And do you know how that fight ended?”
“You strung him up in loose cables, didn’t you?”
Caden shook his head: “That’s what they say, and it’s technically true. But that was after I’d already beat him. The truth is, I almost lost that fight.” Jonah gasped. “Dire Wolf got the drop on me,” Caden continued. “With his speed and the confined space, he got close enough to grab me from behind before I could stop him. I didn’t have time to think. I only had one chance to react. He had my arms pinned with one arm so I couldn’t use my hands, and he had his other arm around my neck. I knew if he thought I was trying something, he could kill me before I could kill him. The only thing I could do was to hit him in the head from behind. I had to pick something up the right size and weight without looking, move it without making a sound, and aim it at his head without moving my hands, and pull it hard enough to knock him out without hitting myself. Blind, no-hands telekinesis.”
Jonah was looking pretty uncomfortable by now. He was definitely seeing the point.
“So I did the only thing I could. I whacked him with a pipe hard in the back of the head and prayed it was enough to knock him out—ideally without killing him. It worked. Three times lucky.”
“But you won,” Jonah said.
“Yeah, I won, but I didn’t feel like I deserved it. If I had to rely on luck that much, I wouldn’t live long in this business. I was young. I was reckless. I hadn’t been a team leader for that long, and Roadrunner was even less qualified than I was, so he wasn’t able to help. I didn’t know nearly as much as I do now about precision flying, and it could have ended very badly for me more than once because of it. And so, I got better. I trained myself harder, and I made sure that wouldn’t ever happen again.”
Jonah found himself nodding again. “So all those things you were making me do…” he started.
“Jonah, I promise you that every stupid thing I make you do this summer, I pushed myself twice as hard to learn it after that fight.”
The boy blushed visibly with shame, even with his skin tone. “I…I’m sorry I yelled at you, sir.” The honorific slipped out without thinking. “I didn’t know…I…I guess I shouldn’t have flown off like that.”
“No, you shouldn’t have, but not because it was disrespectful, but because it was dangerous. I’m here to teach you how to not get hurt like I did and like a lot of other fliers have. But I can only do that if you cooperate.”
“I understand, sir.”
“So you’ll come back and do all the exercises I tell you to without flying away again?”
“Good. I’ll hold you to that.” Caden offered him his hand, and they shook on it. Then, without letting go, he pulled Jonah onto his back again.
“Oh no, do we have to?” he protested.
“It’s the only way back without walking all day. Hold on.”
They got back to the university in under ten minutes, and Caden led Jonah back to the room with the strange furniture. “I want you to take a closer look at this room, Jonah,” he said. “It’s actually a lot like the rock-climbing wall. You need to pay attention to your footing.” He tipped back one of the chairs, revealing sturdy cross-bracing. “Look: heavy oak frame, probably weighs more than you do. This isn’t going anywhere, maybe not even if you throw your full weight at it. But look at this one.” He levitated another chair that looked very similar from above, but had no visible frame when he spun it around. “This is an upholstered foam block. Every piece of furniture you knocked over before is like this. It weighs less than ten pounds. And the room is filled with heavy furniture and light furniture at random. Now, how were you trying to fly in here earlier?”
“I was pushing off the ground, like always.”
“Course I was.”
“Were you?” Caden repeated more sternly.
“Um…” Jonah could recognise a leading question when he saw it.
“I think you did what most fliers usually do: you pushed off whatever was underneath you, right?”
“So what went wrong with that?”
“The light ones moved when I pushed them…And I lost my, um, footing, I guess?”
“Precisely. The chair moved away, and suddenly, you didn’t have anything to push against. So how do you stop that from happening?”
Jonah was silent in thought.
“Remember, you don’t know which ones are which,” Caden added. “Sure, you can use your sixth sense, but it’s a lot slower.”
“I guess…” he said. “I need to only push on the floor.”
“Yes. You don’t know what will be under you. It might be something that will stay put, like this heavy chair, or it might be something light that won’t support your weight. It might be breakable. It could even be people, and you could hurt them doing that. But you don’t have to push off of whatever is under you. You can reach around with your sixth sense to the biggest thing around, and that’s the ground. Not what’s on the ground—the ground. And better yet, try to spread your weight out over a wider area instead of just one spot, but that’s a little more difficult. That’s something we’ll have to work on over the summer.”
“Okay, okay,” Jonah groaned. He was determined not to blow up again, but it was easier said than done.
“It’s worth it in the end,” Caden said. “If you learn to support your weight properly and navigate without trouble, you should be able to fly blindfolded.”
“I never said it was a good idea, but in an emergency, or at night, it can be useful…and come to think of it, I know a boy in Florida named Paul who’s totally blind…but that’s a special case.”
“Where do you meet these people?” Jonah asked.
Caden chuckled and answered, “We supers have to stick together. We all stay in contact across the country, especially people with similar powers. We like to stay connected, just in case we ever need something. You never know if something big’s going to happen. Now, Jonah, let’s try this again.”
The next day, a group of the kids again assembled in the gym with Caden and Adeline for another round of dodgeball, with a few modifications. Roberto, the speedster, was still there, but a couple of the weakest players were absent.
“We’re changing the rules a little today,” Caden explained. “This is three-dimensional dodgeball. That means you can fly, Jonah—”
“—You can climb the walls, Genesis,” he continued. “And anyone else who can make this more interesting and three-dimensional can go for it. And there’s another new rule. Bounces off the walls are still out of bounds. The ball is dead, and you hand to touch it with your hands before it becomes live again. However, bounces off the ceiling are still live.” He had tested the lighting fixtures against ball strikes in advance.
Adeline then stepped forward and started the game, still scanning everything with her glasses, but this time, she threw the balls with some kind of experimental sling on her arm. “There are seven of you this time, so you have three balls,” she said. “Ready? Play ball!”
Roberto knew that he would have a hard fight on his hands, so he started racing around the gym and throwing balls as fast as he could. Unfortunately for him, the looser rules worked to the others’ advantage. Genesis was up on the ceiling almost immediately and was still dodging easily despite hanging from the lights. Having to dodge balls falling from above made things more complicated. Jonah was in the air and had improved significantly at detecting and deflecting balls that were headed towards him. With bounces off the ceiling, Roberto actually had more things to keep track of than before, and before long, he missed a dodge and was knocked out of the game.
After that, the balls kept whizzing around in seemingly random ways as they were affected by various powers. Now able to fly, it was Jonah who controlled the court since it was harder for balls to reach him in the air. His control had improved as well, even with his small amount of practice. Being able to send the balls all over the place with his mind, he managed to knock out all the other players one by one and won the round.
After that, the balance shifted. The other players needed to go after both Jonah and Roberto early, and that balanced the game out well enough that anyone could win. Roberto won one round, and so did Genesis, and it actually made for a more interesting game than yesterday, despite the smaller group.
“So, Jonah,” Caden said after they concluded, “you’re starting to see the merits of this training.”
“Yeah,” the boy said enthusiastically. “That was great. I’ve never been able to do stuff like that before.”
“I’m glad you understand, now. Just remember, what we’ve done so far is only the basics. You still have a long way to go. If I’d been in that game, the only one who would’ve had a chance of challenging me would be Roberto.”
Jonah’s eyes widened. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised, though. This was the Desert Falcon, after all. This was going to be an interesting summer.
“So, are you still ready to keep training with me?” Caden asked.
“Definitely, sir. Sorry about yesterday.”
“Don’t worry about it. Every origin story needs a bit of rebellion. But I’m glad you stayed to work things out. By the way, I’m not sure if you ever officially met my sister. Jonah, this is Adeline. Adeline, Jonah.”
Adeline shook his hand. “Pleased to you,” she said. “Good luck being a sidekick, Jonah. I wouldn’t wanna be in your shoes.” Caden rolled his eyes. “I’d stay and chat, but I have to get to class.”
“To class?” Jonah said. “What class are you taking?”
“Why’re you takin’ that?”
“Well I know this girl in St. Petersburg named Tanya—”
“Oh no, not you too!”