With Great Power
She first heard the news as she was folding laundry in the den, with the TV on for background noise. The talk show host’s breathy voice became urgent and thrilled, and the sound of shouting and explosions roused Barkley from where he slept at her feet.
She didn’t recognize the villain. Was he new, or had she been even more out of touch than usual lately? He was cast from the same mold as most of the others—white, middle-aged, handsome in a roughly-carved way. He’d get a lot of fan letters, if he was taken alive.
She tried to tell herself that she wasn’t interested, tried to focus on socks and towels and Karen’s awful, threadbare men’s T-shirts, but it had been so long since the last major attack that she couldn’t help turning up the volume and sneaking the occasional look. A mad scientist, this one. How retro.
His creature was a giant, slobbering, reptilian thing that seemed to take no joy in smashing buildings to splinters. She always felt sorry for the creatures, even the vicious ones. They hadn’t asked to be genetically engineered in an off-planet lab.
The Silent Warrior was first on the scene, as usual. He took a moment to pose and twirl his katana, pausing to tuck an errant lock of blond hair back into his mask. The black liner he used to elongate his very blue eyes was clearly visible on the HDTV.
Bionica showed up next, tossing her curls and turning elegantly on five-inch heels. The catsuits all the girls were wearing now were so much more practical than the old strapless bustiers and leotards. No constant tugging and chafing. Bet they were a bitch to peel off at the end of the day, though.
She turned the TV off. It wasn’t her concern. Not anymore.
Karen came home a few hours later with cartons of lasagna and garlic knots from Pastrami’s. “Did you see the news?” she asked. “It’s a big one.”
“Yeah. Did they kill the lizard thing?”
“Kill it? Oh no, it’s not over. The Razor’s taken all of downtown Manhattan. They’ve called in The Triumvirate and Mistress Menace.”
“Huh.” That was unusual—Bionica and The Silent Warrior were effective, she had to give them that—but nothing too worrisome. It was probably good for them all, having a real challenge, getting a little shaken up. Otherwise they’d be giving too many interviews and showing up on red carpets and starting minor intergalactic skirmishes out of boredom.
That night, in bed, Karen stroked her hair and murmured “None of them will ever hold a candle to you.”
“Damn right,” she said, and they both laughed.
The next morning, she got up and turned on the news, expecting to see The Razor dead or captured. Instead, she saw the smoking ruin of Manhattan—why Manhattan, always? Was it just expected, at this point?—and listened to a shaky, dirt-smeared reporter announce that Bionica was in a coma and The Silent Warrior was dead.
It never seemed real, when one of them died. Like a joke she didn’t understand, even though she could tell it had been made at her own expense.
Karen watched her carefully as she made her coffee. “I think I’ll call in today,” Karen said. “Most of the kids will probably stay home anyway, considering.”
They had oatmeal for breakfast, and then took Barkley for a walk down by the pond. They were slow, all three of them. Two old women and an old dog. She wasn’t supposed to think of herself as old, she knew. She was mature, that hazy word for people who had left middle age behind, but still knew how to use computers. Her gray hair was distinguished; the relative health of her sagging, slowing body was was something to be proud of. Magazines and websites and smiling young doctors on early morning news segments told her this often.
She felt old.
By noon, The Triumvirate was missing and Mistress Menace had a skull fracture. She wasn’t a quick-healer.
“You don’t have to, you know,” Karen said, nervous.
She had made the conscious decision to retire, to disappear. She hadn’t burned out or been injured. The new crop was capable enough; she was no longer needed. That’s what she told herself, over and over, as she settled into a “normal” life and was forgotten—not immediately, but quickly enough to sting.
Her old suit still hung in the closet, squished between the winter coats she didn’t need to wear. It looked ludicrously small to her now, like a doll’s outfit. She couldn’t believe it had ever fit.
One time, she hadn’t been able to change beforehand. She couldn’t remember the villain’s name—Christ, it wasn’t that long ago—but she stopped him from releasing a chemical that would have killed all living things in a thousand-mile radius. Every headline had referenced her sweatshirt and ponytail.
After she’d sent a legion of undead Zoegetroions back to the Hell Dimension, she gave her first interview on one of the major networks. She was asked about her diet and how she planned to handle the “work-life balance” when she eventually had children.
As she descended from her final battle with a malfunctioning Xxxaaxtrian borgbot, a reporter hollered “So, is there any truth to the rumors about you and Valor?” She kept flying.
Poor Valor. The official story was that he’d volunteered for a mission beyond Andromeda, but she had been the one to find him, facedown in the bathroom of that filthy motel room, cold and stiff. She still couldn’t fathom the quantity and combination of drugs it must have taken. She carried his body out over the ocean in the dead of night and made sure it would never be found. He had always hated the fame, unlike the others. He felt like a fraud, he always told her. A freak. Nothing he could do would ever be enough. She did what she could to stop news of his affairs from coming out after he was gone, but she was already on bad terms with the press by then. He’d slept with just as many women as men, and had, of course, saved the world more than once, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Valor had been the last of many straws. The pornographic caricatures in men’s magazines; the tedious, thinly-veiled rape threats in every villain monologue; how her pursuit of Hypnotrix, the most sadistic genius she ever encountered, was called a “catfight.” The red-faced evangelists declaring her a minion of Satan and the photographers who zoomed in on her cellulite while she was airborne. And Atom Man, of course.
He was the first, the grandfather of them all. His story seemed almost quaint, now—the farm boy upbringing, the vat of atomic waste. He had patted her on the shoulder and called her “Kid” in a fond way the first time they’d met, and she’d been giddy with pride.
It didn’t take long for the illusion to shatter. He took credit for her first big save, the Polombus Vortex in ‘69. There weren’t cameras everywhere back then, and there hadn’t been any witnesses. She couldn’t prove he hadn’t been there, and knew she’d be foolish to try: who would trust her word over that of the world’s most beloved hero? She watched his press conference in silence, feeling helpless for the first time in her life, almost too shocked to be enraged.
For years, his powers had not only been diminishing, but growing unstable, and he had suffered a few high-profile failures that turned a growing bitterness into pure poison aimed at any fresh faces than might upstage him. He had also started drinking heavily, and openly flaunted his relationships with models and actresses, squeezing out crocodile tears for the cameras every time one was kidnapped and murdered by an archenemy.
She knew he’d been responsible for some of the nastier (though hilariously off-base) rumors about her. They all knew, and none of them did a thing about it. But the footage of his fatal loss to Stormmaker in ‘82—seeing the disbelief, the expression of almost innocent surprise on his face when he realized that he had been beaten, that he was mortal after all—had been a punch in the gut all the same.
And now The Silent Warrior was dead. She hadn’t liked him—she didn’t like most of the new breed; they were so grim and humorless, all cynicism and no charisma—but he was one of theirs, and he was so young, and now he was dead.
“But if you do,” Karen said, “then, just…know that nothing’s going to change between us. At least on my end.”
They were both crying now. She’d never been a crier before menopause.
“You should probably head up to the cabin for a while, anyway,” she said. “Take Barkley.”
She tried to ignore the sound of the sedan pulling out of the driveway as she rifled through her closet, pausing to shake her head at the old scrap of blue and gold satin. She imagined herself in it, seams bulging, her sunken breasts wobbling in the molded cups, and managed to laugh. It probably wouldn’t even pull up past her thighs.
Recalling Bionica’s catsuit, she put on some black jeans, boots, and the leather jacket Karen had gotten her for Christmas a few years ago. She thought about wearing a mask, but she never had before, and didn’t have anything to make one with. Masks never fooled anyone for long, anyway. Only in the movies.
She stretched, her joints creaking, cleaned her glasses—she needed glasses now; how ridiculous—and stepped out into the coolness of early evening.
She’d never given up flying. That would be madness. She just did it at night, when she could look down at the black forests and fields and webs of light that formed towns and cities. It was odd to see the setting sun as her toes brushed the treetops.
The journey wasn’t long—she had never gone far—and soon she was hovering above the smoking rubble of Manhattan.
Ah, the guilt. That old familiar feeling.
“Why does anyone even live here anymore?” she muttered as she headed toward the sound of anguished reptilian bellowing, touching down amid the expected scene of chaos and destruction. The Razor had worked himself up into quite a state, and his poor monster was covered in what she assumed, despite its chartreuse hue, was its own blood. The rocket launchers mounted on its back dug into its craggy hide, and thick pus oozed from the wounds. The stench was awful.
She waited to be noticed as the soldiers behind a makeshift wall of overturned cars scrambled to reload their weapons, and finally had to concede that she would not be. Invisibility, she thought, was a power shared by all women of a certain age, even ones who fell from the sky.
“Excuse me,” she said, and the nearest soldier—good lord, he was just a child—spun around to goggle at her with exhausted, bloodshot eyes.
“Ma’am, what are you doing?” he yelped. “Get out of there!”
“If you could just tell the others to hold their fire for a moment. It gets a little distracting,” she said, taking off before she could hear his response.
The Razor noticed her, all right. He swayed on his perch on the suffering beast’s back, momentarily shocked out of his frenzy. She had interrupted a rousing bout of maniacal laughter, and he looked annoyed.
“What the hell?” He furrowed his sweat-slick brow. “I…wait, you’re…you’re…”
She’d like to think that he was struck dumb with awe, but knew he just couldn’t remember her name.
“Let’s just go with ‘undefeated,’ shall we?” she said, slightly regretful that they were too high up for anyone else to hear. That was a pretty good line.
And then she released what had been held in check for so, so long.
Afterward, when the creature was mercifully dead and The Razor lay unconscious on the pavement below, she wavered, trying to decide if it would be better to just go, to fly off and find Karen and start pretending that nothing had changed. But below her, hundreds of tiny points of light glimmered, like a little galaxy had settled on the street, and curiosity drew her down.
They were cellphones. Bystanders (there were always bystanders, no matter how bad it got. Trying to get people to evacuate was a thankless job), soldiers, reporters, and even the camera crews—all had their phones fixed on her, and she heard mutters of “Did you see that?” and “…already on YouTube.”
One reporter rushed over, waving his microphone in the air. “It is you!” he yelled as she landed. “I knew it! It’s Glow Girl!”
She barked with laughter as the realization rumbled through the crowd. How stupid it sounded. How exceptionally stupid.
“Well,” she said. “I’m hardly a girl any longer. Of course, I wasn’t one back then, either.”