by LIAM HOGAN
Emergency Face by Dan | Flickr
The klaxon went off while we were having sex.
The klaxon always went off while we were having sex. Or strictly, just before. We never got any further than ripping each other’s SuperHero costumes off.
GraniteMan groaned, but not in a good way. “Prob’ly a false alarm.”
“Probably,” I agreed, but by then I was already suiting back up. “Come on, you big lump,” I said, slapping his rock-hard bottom, “you don’t want to miss out on all the fun.”
Five minutes later we sat staring at the bank of monitors, holding scaldingly hot cups of hot chocolate.
“Anything?” GraniteMan said, the grey pallor of his skin fading now the threat of city-wide destruction and rampant sex were receding.
“Nada.” I tapped the Major Alert Prediction System, the screen showing nothing but technicolor static, before turning to the news ticker. “Warehouse fire in Docklands, AquaGirl is on it. Otherwise, just the usual nefarious night time activities, recorded in glorious 3D HD. You’d have thought the crims would have learnt by now.”
GraniteMan nodded, his fingertips still stone. I might have over-nuked the cocoa. But then, in my defence, I did have rather a lot of energy to channel.
“And the alarm?”
“No idea.” I shrugged and yawned. “I’ll call the Prof in the morning.”
GraniteMan grunted and we went back to bed: to sleep. My fire had kind of gone out and GraniteMan had gone soft.
The Prof was waiting for us at SuperHero Headquarters when we returned from our patrol. We were both grinning as the HoverJet docked, the aftermath of another thwarted armed robbery. The perp, having unloaded his clip at an impassive GraniteMan, had started waving his semi in my direction.
“Why dey call you Micro-Girl?” he grimaced. “You ain’t dat small.”
I’d given the gun he was holding a full power, tight beam, two-point-five gigahertz blast, detonating the last bullet in the chamber. He’d be eating prison food with his left hand from now on, but heck, that’s what you get if you’re dumb enough to call a sexually frustrated Super “chunky”. It doesn’t help that I get sent a dozen TV dinners a day by adolescent humorists and ever-hopeful ready-meal marketeers.
The Prof wasn’t a Super. Not unless you counted his off-the-scale genius as a superpower, which, given how un-Super we’d be without his gadgets, made him the biggest Super of us all. It was the Prof who’d brought us together, equipped the Base, upgraded the City’s CCTV network and plugged us into it, coordinating the Watch and Response system that meant a Super would be on the scene way before the emergency services. Way, way before. Sometimes before the criminals got there, which was kind of spooky.
Didn’t stop him looking like a retired librarian, mind.
The Prof ran diagnostics on the monitoring systems, then dragged thin fingers through wispy hair. “Tolerances might be set a little low,” he grunted. “But... look, the crime detection algorithms are designed to predict events before they happen. Otherwise, all Supers can really do is catch and avenge criminals, not stop crime. Clean up the disasters, not prevent them. And what use is that to the victims?
“But it’s tricky. You have to balance high risk, low probability, against low risk, high probability. Decide what you guys, few that you are, can and should respond to, and which to leave to the emergency services.”
I nodded. Being a Super was a full time job and we were overstretched at that. I don’t know how Spiderman and Superman managed their alter egos, holding down full time jobs in journalism. Oh wait, of course I do. They’re FICTIONAL.
The Prof continued his lecture. “And maybe, sometimes, something else stops the chain of events before it gets too serious,” he said. “But, if the risk is large enough, if the potential disaster is big enough, or if the threat to a Super high enough, then it can’t be ignored, even if the actual seed appears no more significant than a cat up a tree.
“Which is why, if it appears on the Major Alert Prediction System, it needs action.”
“There was nothing on SPAM,” GraniteMan pointed out, after a moment’s glacial silence.
The Prof looked up sharply. “SPAM?”
“System for Predicting Alerts: Major.” GraniteMan said, stony faced. He was a better actor than I’d given him credit for, or maybe he’d taken my oft-repeated lame pun at face value.
“MAPS,” muttered the Prof, “It’s acronymed MAPS.” He gave us both a hard stare, and I for one felt the heat rise in my cheeks. “Still,” he relented, clipping the control panel back into place, “I’m loathe to lower the sensitivities. Sure, you might get a few false alarms, potentialities that are only fleeting, maybe vanished before you get to the monitor, but I’d rather that than you missed a chance to avert a major disaster.”
GraniteMan frowned, but didn’t say anything. I wondered if he was still thinking about the hypothetical cat up the tree. His calcited heart was in the right place, but he’s kind of slow of thought, sometimes.
That night the City basked under a full-moon. The bright white search-light was bad for criminals, but good for romance. I wasn’t surprised when GraniteMan silently led me to the bedroom, the tension heightened by the expectation that at any moment the bloody alarm would go off and interrupt our attempted love making once again.
But it didn’t, nothing did; not as I unzipped the tight-fitting metal-threaded costume, nor as GraniteMan hardened under my touch. The base was utterly silent, other than the creaking of reinforced beams under the bed and the crackling of air as microwave energy streamed from my fingertips and sparked off nearby metal.
When at long, long last we were finally done, totally spent, deliriously happy, our moment of madness over, I lazily rested my head on the warm rock of his heaving chest.
“Ping,” I said, and his sleepy face cracked into a smile. “Corny, I know, but I never actually thought I’d get a chance to use that little joke. Kept on expecting that damned klaxon.”
“No klaxon,” GraniteMan murmured. “I fixed it.”
I levered myself sharply up on one elbow, bone grating against rock. “Fixed?”
I looked at him aghast. “Weren’t you listening to the Prof? What if-”
There was a rumble and a mini-earthquake as he laughed, “The Prof is just embarrassed his system isn’t perfect. False alarms, I get. But a false alarm every time we get naked? Doesn’t make sense. Besides, we’re not the only Super’s in the City, someone else will respond if something is going down, be it MosquitoMan, or AquaGirl, or even The White Witch.”
He grinned lazily up at me, but I just scowled in response. “Idiot! Come on then, let’s go see how much of the City is burning.”
I’d meant it as a joke. I was annoyed at the big lummox, even while I was still tingling inside. But one look at the console and my afterglow evaporated. It was lit up like it was the 4th of July, red lights flashing, the sabotaged klaxon making an electronic hiccup noise like an embarrassed frog with laryngitis.
I checked the tracking signals for the other Supers. That was my biggest worry; the system was designed to respond strongest to a threat to one of us. It made sense, there weren’t many SuperHeroes and we did tend to put ourselves in the firing line. But all the vitals looked healthy: all of them converging somewhere midtown, somewhere close. Even the Prof was on the move, in a speeding black cab. Whatever was happening was happening near Headquarters, on our watch, and, if I hadn’t tried it once before and needed a trip to A&E as a result, I’d have kicked the man mountain stood buck-naked next to me.
But none of the CCTV monitors showed any major crimes in action, no epic disaster unfurling under the bright moonlight. My eyes flicked back and forth, desperate to find some sign of something, scanning the bank of screens on my left, looking for movement, for anything odd or out of place, expecting GraniteMan to do the same his side.
“Um,” he croaked.
He was pointing at the MAPS Monitor, the AI-generated prediction of the likely shape of the imminent disaster. The Prof’s most genius invention.
At first, it was hard to see what the dark image was. Fuzzy, grainy, but clearly some animal, some creature of the depths, perhaps, swimming up the Thames, or burrowing through soft clay from below?
Oddly familiar shape, though.
And then, as that shape began to get brighter, glowing a deep fiery red, I twigged. I’d seen enough of these on the recent Facebook pages of my University friends as they hit their 30s.
It looked exactly like a pregnancy ultrasound.
Except the use of those false colours; red now giving way to orange, to bright yellow.
Was it a thermal scan? Or a traditional ultrasound, the baby peculiarly dense?
Or was it a composite, I wondered, as the image glowed white hot.
At what temperature does rock melt?
And though it was far too soon to feel anything, I felt a sudden stab of heartburn, an echo from the future being predicted before me.
I knew, straight away, that this was not a pregnancy that could be stopped. This little bundle of joy was more than capable of nuking morning after pills and vaporising an abortion doctor’s metal tools, all in self defence, of course.
But then, I quickly realised, I didn’t want it stopped. Whatever the Alert system was worried about, we’d cope. That’s what parents do. We’d work out how to keep a Lava-Baby, and us, safe.
GraniteMan stood there, slack jawed. “Did we...?”
I reached out and took his trembling hand, gave the unresisting stone a gentle squeeze, just as a squall of fat raindrops heralded AquaGirl’s arrival, followed by the annoying whine of MosquitoMan’s jetpack.
“You’d better get some extra chairs,” I said, blinking away a happy tear, “And some clothes. I think we’ve got some explaining to do.”
Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk.