The big day had finally arrived at the School for Gifted Children, and the dean practically kowtowed from his own office.
The staff and a coterie of New York’s most influential parents were ecstatic to host their esteemed guest, the one and only Dr. Warren Albright. He looked as though he’d stepped out of the glossy author photo from one of his best-selling books. His hair was chestnut brown with frost touched temples and his voice had the nourishing warmth of a fireplace in winter. He used his power to diagnose latent super-abilities to set young people on the path to greatness. Dr. Albright was much more than a mentor.
He was a guidance counselor.
He could hear the children and their minders outside in the hallway, waiting for their date with destiny. They were all overachievers, but not all were from privileged backgrounds. The Albright Scholarship had scouted them from every walk of life. Born with rare conditions, they had beaten the odds to make it this far, and now they were hoping to win the lottery. Early assessment, career planning and connections were all key factors in the success of famous superheroes.
Dr. Albright set his pipe in the dean’s paper clip bin, adjusted the sleeves of his barleycorn tweed jacket, and then announced to the Headmistress, “Let us begin.”
The first candidate was ushered in. He was a chubby boy in a tight navy sport coat. If he was anxious, it didn’t show on his plump cheeks. He practically bounced into the room. Dr. Albright glanced down at the boy’s academic transcript.
“Good morning, Oscar. It is so good to meet you.”
Oscar hopped into the chair opposite. “Yeah! You too.”
“As I’m sure you’ve been told, I will be assessing your latent powers today. We will be discussing issues above and beyond the clinical baseline diagnosis. Are you ready?”
“It’s not painful, I promise.”
Oscar’s smile brightened and he shrugged. “Yeah! I’m ready.”
Dr. Albright leaned in and tented his fingers, absorbing information with his exquisitely refined power.
Oscar’s jaw dropped. “What? No way. Really?”
“I have known a few teleporters in my day. It is a rare and incredible gift.”
Dr. Albright scanned through Oscar’s academic record.
“How is your math? I see that you have performed well in most of your other subjects.”
“I love learning languages, and I’m a total anthropology geek. I’m into history and art…I am just so pumped to start teleporting. I want to see the whole world!”
Dr. Albright reached for his pipe and then left it. He had cleaned and emptied it before arriving, as there was no smoking allowed in the school.
“Seeing the world is certainly a laudable goal, Oscar. For earthbound people, like me, the world is terra firma, the one thing we can trust. If I close my eyes and fall backwards, I know that the earth will be there to catch me. When you begin traveling at advanced speeds, however, you encounter a harsh reality; the planet is always moving. As we speak, it is rotating at nearly one thousand miles per hour, while traveling around the sun at approximately sixty-seven thousand miles per hour.”
Oscar looked confused.
Dr. Albright continued. “The earth also moves at different speeds at different latitudes, so if you were to teleport to the wrong place, at the wrong angle, you would hit the earth incredibly fast and hard, or else miss it entirely. If you found yourself too high up in the atmosphere, or god forbid, in outer space, you might succumb to decompression sickness, hypoxia, and hypothermia before you could reorient yourself well enough to teleport home.”
“Wait…are you saying that teleportation is impossible?”
“Of course not! It is even relatively safe, so long as you have a perfect grasp of angular velocity, navigation, orbital mechanics, and so on. Once you have absolute confidence in your calculations, I would still advise that you stay close to the surface, however. Most of the world is covered in water, so if you don’t mind getting wet every now and then, you’ll be fine. Needless to say, the rest of the planet is covered with mountains, trees, buildings, people…perhaps it would be prudent to limit travel to your direct line of sight. And take care not to startle anyone; you never know who may have a heart condition that will drop dead from surprise.”
Oscar’s buoyant cheeks deflated.
“Chin up, son. There are plenty of other ways to see the world. You could be a pilot,” He paused to double-check Oscar’s grades, “…or possibly a flight attendant.”
Oscar shuffled to the opposite door, carefully placing one foot in front of the other.
The next candidate strode in. He was the oldest of the group, a young man with a burgundy button down and a gold silk bow tie. He extended a firm handshake. “I’m Marcus Hill. It is an honor to meet you, Dr. Albright.”
He sat tall on the edge of his chair.
Dr. Albright opened his file.
“It seems like you’re ready, Marcus.”
Marcus’s knees bounced and he clasped his hands. “Yes sir. I was born ready.”
Dr. Albright closed his eyes and nodded.
Marcus leaned back and covered his mouth. “Fire powers? For real?” He grinned and brought his hands back together. “Okay, okay. That’s what’s up.”
Dr. Albright absentmindedly touched his pipe again.
“I understand that fire can be a very alluring force, but it must command your respect. As an exercise, I would like to present you with some of the most common scenarios that require heroes. Earthquakes, plane crashes, industrial accidents, terrorism, riots…do any of those situations seem like they would be improved with fire?”
The teenager’s face tightened. “I’ll be a solution, not a problem. I’ll train until I’m world class.”
“I’m sure you would, Marcus, but there is a reason why police officers and doctors don’t carry flamethrowers. The military no longer uses them either. Not because they are cruel and indiscriminate, which of course they are, but because they are not deemed particularly effective.”
“With all due respect, Dr. Albright, I wouldn’t be a random guy lugging a heavy flame thrower, spraying fire everywhere. If this power is a part of me I would have total control. I would use it intelligently.”
“Intelligence and control are not words usually associated with fire. Do you remember the Tulare Complex Fire? I suppose it was before your time. It was one of the worst wildfires in this hemisphere. Thousands of homes, a hundred civilians, dozens of firefighters, countless animals…reduced to ash, all by a kid with a lighter. Fire season gets longer and deadlier every year, Marcus. By the time your power manifests, it may even be year round.”
Marcus threw his hands up. “So what am I supposed to do?”
“Don’t worry. There is a place for you. There are shipping vessels in the arctic that still have to contend with the shifting ice pack. I have no doubt that they would be thrilled to have someone like you aboard.”
Marcus nodded and slunk out through the other door.
The next candidate, a lanky girl with dirty blond hair and large green eyes, waved as she entered. “Hi! I’m Allison.”
She had a refreshingly open face and an aroma of fresh cut grass. Dr. Albright wouldn’t be surprised if she had grass stains on her jeans. She sat down and swung her legs.
“So?” She dragged the word out with a wily smile, as though she’d caught him holding a present behind his back.
“Yes, let me get right to it.”
He extended his palm and pursed his lips.
“You have the latent ability to speak with animals.”
Alison squealed and jumped out of her chair. “Ohmygodohmygod! I knew it! Best power ever!”
He gestured for her to sit down. She bounced in her chair as if it were a jeep on safari.
“Tell me, Alison…are you a vegetarian?”
She cocked her head to one side. “I like vegetables.”
“Yes, but do you only like vegetables?”
“I love animals, if that’s what you mean.”
Dr. Albright put his palms on the desk. “Do you eat meat?”
“Only chicken and bacon. And fish. Oh, I guess I like turkey, but not like, all the time.”
“I see. That will probably change once your power becomes active. I would strongly recommend that you move as far as possible from any industrial farms, slaughter houses, or animal shelters before that time.”
“Does this mean I can be an animal doctor?”
“As long as you keep your grades up, I am confident that you will make a fine veterinarian.”
She bounced from the room, eager to tell everyone about her exciting future. Dr. Albright closed her file.
“Please send in the next candidate.”
A slim boy efficiently crossed the room and sat down. He stared at Dr. Albright through his square glasses.
“Good morning, David.” He tapped the boy’s transcript. “I must say, your academic achievements are outstanding.”
David blinked and adjusted his glasses. The light shimmered off his dark hair, which had nearly been combed and gelled into a helmet.
“Feel free to talk or ask questions.”
The boy waited quietly.
Dr. Albright moved on with his assessment. He repressed a shiver.
“Mr. Kwan, you have the latent ability to project energy from your eyes.”
The boy paused, about to readjust his glasses.
“This will be hard to hear, so I will deal with the facts plainly. Your eyes are weapons. If you decide to use your powers in war time, to uphold the law, or even in self-defense, you will have to look directly at your enemies. There will be no fog of war. You will witness exactly what you have done, and it will not be pretty.”
The boy nodded slowly for him to continue.
“The world needs soldiers and protectors, I won’t deny that. Your skills will be highly valued, and if you choose that life, I know you will perform admirably.” Dr. Albright’s eyes flicked away. “The larger issue here is with civilian life. Once people learn of your ability, it is unlikely that they will ever make eye contact with you again. They may not even go near you, for fear that you may sneeze or get startled and unleash a sudden bolt of lethal energy. Beyond the risks of the battlefield and almost guaranteed PTSD, you will return to a life of alienation and loneliness.”
David’s face remained neutral, but strands of his black hair broke free from their orderly shell and his glasses had begun to fog up.
“I am terribly sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, David, but there are…options.”
After decades of research and great expense, The Albright Foundation had developed a treatment that permanently sent superpowers into complete remission. They provided this service freely for those with dangerous or unwanted abilities.
David Kwan rose wearily, like a prisoner yoked with a great weight.
“Thank you for your honesty, Doctor.”
He left without looking back and stepped into the hall, where his severe looking parents waited expectantly.
Dr. Albright watched him leave with a twinge of relief. He slid David’s folder to a separate pile and then signaled to the dean that he needed a break.
He took his pipe outside to the rose garden. The parents and administrators watched him pack his pipe. They were nervous and eager for answers, but they had the decorum not to impose upon his solitude.
He struck a match and sipped the stem of his pipe until the sweet tobacco smoldered. He considered all of the kids that he never had a chance to counsel, those ignorant, reckless youths that had grown to become infamous criminals; Commodore Chaos, Laughing Skull, King Psycho, Pain Eater. He puffed and exhaled a smoky sigh of deep satisfaction.
None of them had snuffed out as many superheroes as Dr. Albright.