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Preview of Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Posted on March 23, 2010 by Flames

Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes. Vigilantes. Crusaders for justice, using their superhuman abilites to make Los Angeles a better place.

Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Despite the best efforts of the superheroes, the police, and the military, the hungry corpses rose up and overwhelmed the country. The population was decimated, heroes fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland like so many others.

Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions must overcome their differences and recover from their own scars to protect the thousands of survivors sheltered in their film studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. The heroes lead teams out to scavenge supplies, keep the peace within the walls of their home, and try to be the symbols the survivors so desperately need.

For while the ex-humans walk the streets night and day, they are not the only threat left in the world, and the people of the Mount are not the only survivors left in Los Angeles. Across the city, another group has grown and gained power.

And they are not heroes.

Flames Rising is pleased to present a new preview of Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines.

EX-HEROES by Peter Clines

    PROLOGUE – NOW

    Katie had been on the walls of the Mount for two hours, leaning against the Earth, when St. George dropped out of the sky wearing a leather flight jacket.

    She held out a fist without looking up and he rapped his knuckles against hers. They didn’t speak for six minutes, and she used the time to finish cleaning her rifle. Half the reason she volunteered for the walls was so she didn’t have to talk to people, and he knew it. She finished with the weapon, reloaded it, and adjusted her sunglasses. The rifle settled against her shoulder as she finally looked up at him.

    St. George was in his mid-thirties, a solid six feet tall with pale eyes behind tinted lenses. Like a lot of people in the Mount, he was lean, with a body more used to surviving than being well-fed. Unlike most people, he had thick brown hair that stretched down past his shoulders. It took way too much effort to cut it, she knew, and it wasn’t like it put him at extra risk.

    “You’re early,” she said at last.

    He shrugged. “Slow day. I’m doing the rounds in reverse.”

    “She won’t like that. That’s the kind of thing’s going to get you in trouble.”

    “Maybe.”

    She tossed a pebble over the edge and tried to pick out the rap it made on the pavement from the chattering below. “You still going out tomorrow?”

    A single nod from him. “We’re going to head north again. Try hitting some of the apartments and smaller shops toward Los Feliz.” He looked down at the exes milling on the streets and sidewalk below. “Nice crowd today.”

    “You should’ve been at the Van Ness gate yesterday. Almost twice as many.”

    “Any problems?”

    She shook her head. “Stealth authorized ten rounds. Only one miss.”

    “One’s enough to piss her off.”

    “Yes it was.” Katie glanced at the moving figures on the street. She counted two dozen exes below on Gower. Nine male, fifteen female. Just the other night she’d gotten in a heated, after-sex discussion with Derek about whether exes even had genders.

    “They don’t mate,” Derek had said. “They don’t use the parts for anything, so calling them male or female is pointless. They’re all just ‘its’.”

    “So if you don’t have sex, you’re an it?”

    “Well, not if you’re choosing not to have sex, no. But rocks don’t fuck. Neither do chairs or blankets or exes. So they’re its.”

    Katie wondered if St. George was fucking anyone, or chose not to. Or if he was an it. The heroes still tended to keep to themselves, even the friendly ones. Still, she was guessing he’d be pretty awesome.

    “Anything else?”

    She handed her binoculars to him. “Look up at the sign.” She pointed up Gower to the hills, where the most famous real estate sign in the world still stood.

    He took a long look. Near the ‘H’ was a small oval of darkness, maybe six feet across and ten high. It was like a dead spot on the lens, and it made the white, weather-beaten letter look more like a backwards four.

    “Midknight?” Katie asked.

    “Yeah,” said the hero. He sighed and smoke curled from his nostrils. “That’s him all right.”

    “What d’you want to do?”

    He handed her the binoculars. “Track him. He’s not dangerous up there in the hills, but if he gets down into the city he could play hell with our night defenses.”

    “Why don’t you just go take care of him now?”

    “Hardly worth the effort, don’t you think?”

    It was her turn to shrug. “A dead ex is one less ex.”

    St. George took a long, slow breath. “Like I said, he’s no danger to us up there. If he gets into the city, we’ll get rid of him. It’s a waste of time and ammo to do anything else.”

    “Sorry. Was he a friend of yours?”

    The air hissed out of his nose as more smoke. “Only met him two or three times. But he was a decent guy”

    “Don’t get soft. Stealth’ll have your head.”

    His lips twisted into a wry grin. “She’s tried.”

    Katie snorted and looked back down to the street. Right below her one of the male exes, a guy in a gore-covered casual suit, was banging its face against the wall of the Mount, trying to walk through the concrete. “You heading over to Melrose next?”

    “Yeah,” said the hero. “Message for Derek?”

    “Just tell him he’s an idiot and he’s still wrong.”

    “I was going to tell him that anyway, but sure.”

    She gave him a weak salute. St. George took a few running steps along the rubbery tar paper and hurled himself back into the air. He sailed away along the wall, heading for the gate a few blocks east.

    Katie settled back against the oversized globe and watched the stumblers below. The trendy ex had managed to turn. Its shoulder dragged against the wall, and every other step sent its face swinging at the concrete again as it clicked and clacked down the sidewalk.

    “Living the Hollywood dream,” she sighed, and shouldered her weapon again.
    THEN

    Enter The Dragon

    They say you never forget your first time.

    It’d been about three months since the Incident at the lab. “Incident” was how they kept referring to it in the news and in the therapy sessions, and the word had been beaten into my head by constant use. There’d been a lot of publicity around me at first as the sole survivor of the explosion, but the news quickly shifted to focus on the twelve people who had died and the scandal of poor chemical storage. Of course, who could blame the University for not designing their building to resist a meteor strike?

    Of the twelve victims, seven took a few hours to die. One took a whole day. There was a lot in the papers regarding the wave of chemicals we’d been exposed to. Things that could poison you, twist your body chemistry, or taint your blood. Even corrupt your DNA, according to some people. I also read lots of articles about that meteorite and the odd wavelengths of electromagnetic energy it threw off. Lots of stuff on Wired news about it for a few weeks. I think NASA ended up with it, farmed a ton of work out to MIT, and then it just sort of dropped off the radar.

    I was in quarantine for a month. Three more weeks passed and I faded back into obscurity, too. Well, George Bailey did, anyway.

    Yes, George Bailey. My name’s been my curse my entire life. To this day I’ve got no idea why my parents were so cruel. And, yes, I own the deluxe DVD edition and I prefer to watch it in the original black and white.

    Anyway, it’d been three months when I noticed the strength. That was first. Physical therapy after the explosion had felt kind of easy and weights seemed a little lighter at the gym, but nothing amazing. One day I was running to beat the street-sweepers (if you live in the Koreatown area like me, street-sweeping rules your life) and somehow managed a fumble-drop-kick that left my keys under the car. I was stretching for them when my shoulder pushed against the frame and shoved my Hyundai a foot up onto the sidewalk.

    Odd, yes, but it’s amazing what you can justify when parking enforcement is closing in on you. It wasn’t until a few days later, back at work, that something happened I couldn’t ignore. I got pissed, lost my temper at a dumpster with a stuck lid, and kicked it through the side of the applied physics building. By the time a crowd gathered and security showed up, people already assumed some drunk had slammed it with his car.

    Even that I probably could’ve rationalized somehow, but a week later I was taking a shower and had a rasp in my throat. One of those little tickles that’re a bit too coarse, like you’d hiccupped a bit of stomach acid but it didn’t quite make it to your mouth. I hacked to shake it loose and belched a cloud of fire a little bigger than a basketball. It melted part of the shower curtain.

    I was smart enough to start testing my limits out of sight.

    People tend to be surprised how much empty space there is in Los Angeles. You can wander some parts of Griffith Park and you’d never guess you’re still in one of the biggest cities in the country. So getting away to practice lifting boulders or breathing fire isn’t impossible, but it still has some risks–especially when you’re training yourself to vomit on command. I hate to admit it, but I started one of those fires that was on the news. Not the big one that threatened the Observatory, but one of the small ones that followed it.

    Lifting rocks bigger than me wasn’t too much effort. If I got my leverage right, I could get most cars off the ground. I got the Hyundai over my head twice.

    This was the kind of stuff distracting me. Thinking about picking up boulders and coughing like a flamethrower. This was running through my head every day at work, at each meal and when I stretched out on my cheap-ass futon at night. It distracted me enough I tripped and fell down the stairs one morning.

    Or at least, most people would’ve fallen. I coasted across the stairwell and floated to the floor. Once I was sure no one else was in the hall, I threw myself down the next three flights. Each time there was a weird little buzz, sort of a twist between my shoulders, and I felt light. I’d drift down and land with a tap of my feet on the floor.

    Flight was sort of the last straw, in a good way. Maybe I’d read too many comic books as a kid or watched too many superhero movies as an adult. I don’t know. Could be I was just stupid enough to think this had happened to someone like me, in a city like this, for a reason. That one man could change things.

    I spent another three weeks up in the Hollywood Hills. I snuck into Runyon Canyon at night and threw myself off hills and cliffs. There’s a bench at the very top of the dog path that turned out to be a great launch point. There are some great ones out in Malibu, too, like all those rocks at the end of Zuma Beach. I just needed to watch out for night surfers.

    It’s not real flight like Superman or the guy from Heroes. It’s more like a hang glider, I think, where you have lift but no actual propulsion. I can soar pretty far and pretty fast thanks to my enhanced muscles, but I always come down.

    A few crashes confirmed I was a lot tougher, too. My skin, my bones, even my hair. I wouldn’t say invulnerable, but at the time I felt safe thinking ‘bulletproof’. I spent one weekend trying to break my skin with sewing needles, an X-acto knife, and even a cordless drill. Heck, the stove burner cooled off in my hand while I watched it.

    The last detail was the costume. The ski suit from Sports Chalet was already silk-screened to look like red scales, and the gauntlets and boots were all black. The mask was two or three different things from Party City mashed together, enough so I wouldn’t be looking at a copyright lawsuit. I had to reinforce the Halloween cape with the folding arms from a pair of umbrellas, which worked pretty well all things considered. The idea was to increase my hang time, as it were. Not all of us own a multibillion-dollar company with an R&D lab in the basement, y’know.

    My first night out was June seventeenth, 2008. A Tuesday. At this point it had been over half a year since the Incident. No news coverage in three months. It’d be tough for anyone to link my new identity to it.

    I took the whole mess up to the roof of my apartment in a duffel bag. Didn’t want to risk any of my neighbors seeing me. I changed in the shadow of the elevator tower and hid the bag behind one of the air vents. I’d never wear this costume under a shirt and a pair of jeans, that’s for sure.

    From the roof of that old building you could see all of Los Angeles. Griffith Park Observatory. The Hollywood sign. Downtown. Century City. Wilshire Center. And the pit my section of town had become. I didn’t have to turn my head to see three or four cans worth of graffiti and gang signs spread across the sidewalk. XV3’s. Seventeens. All fighting over an area where people just wanted to live in peace.

    I remember my heart was pounding, and a dozen things were running through my head. Bulletproof was still just an idea at that point, and I knew enough about guns from GTA to know all firearms are not created equal. Hell, looking back on it, an AK-47 wouldn’t’ve been unrealistic to run into.

    After ten minutes of telling myself how stupid this was, how ridiculous I looked, and that I was probably heading out to my death, I got a running start and jumped off the roof. I focused and felt the small twist between my shoulders. The cape caught the wind and the umbrella arms snapped open.

    And I was flying.

    I crossed Beverly and Oakwood, sailed over the hill and landed on the roof of a laundromat on Melrose, just past Normandie, six blocks north of my starting point. As far as I could tell, no one had seen me. I launched myself back into the air and this time I kicked off a phone pole when I started to lose momentum, flying right over the 101 freeway. I leaned on the cape and swung back toward Hollywood.

    I played around like this for an hour, figuring out my limits, when I heard the scream. Sounded like a woman. It took me a minute to get turned around, then another to get high enough so I could see the area.

    There were three guys chasing her down one of the smaller streets. Well, not even chasing. Running alongside and teasing her. One of them kept grabbing at her and she kept shaking him off. Even from sixty feet up, I could see she was scared and running blind.

    I pulled the cape in tight, went into a dive, and let the wind pull it open at the last minute to swing me around. I stumbled a bit on the landing, but they were all so startled at me dropping out of the sky none of them noticed. One of the guys swore in Spanish. So did the girl.

    While I’d been flying I’d been thinking up clever catchphrases and opening lines, but now my mind was blank. At that point, though, I’d been psyching myself up for almost a month. I just started walking toward them without thinking. I think I blurted out “Leave her alone,” without even trying to disguise my voice. The words weren’t even out of my mouth before two of them had pulled out pistols. They fired two or three shots each. The girl screamed. So did I.

    It goes without saying getting shot hurts. Not as bad as it could’ve been– it was like getting punched, where there’s pain but you already know on some level there’s no serious damage. I staggered a bit, but I didn’t fall.

    They swore some more. The one without a pistol cracked and ran. One of the others emptied his gun into me. It stung like hell but now I was braced for it. I didn’t move this time, and the bullets pattered on the ground at my feet. The third guy seemed to be in shock.

    I took in a deep breath, tried to relax my tongue, and felt that scratch in the back of my throat. Another breath swelled my chest and I tasted the faint sizzle of chemicals mixing. I let it all out.

    It was the biggest flame I’d ever made, and to this day I still think one of the most impressive. A good fifteen feet of golden, burning air lit up the entire street, hitting the ground right between the last two men. Not even men. Teenagers. Kids in green bandannas who were screaming like little children as the cuffs of their jeans caught fire. I coughed once as my lungs hit empty and burped up a little softball of flames with some black smoke. They ran.

    The girl was staring at me and whispering prayers over and over again. She was barely out of her teens. I think I freaked her out just as much as the other guys did.

    I debated chasing the bad guys or trying to calm her down, but in the time it took me to decide either one became a lost cause. Then I spent another few seconds deciding if I should say something or go for the dark and silent persona. So many things I hadn’t thought out. In the end, as the last of the flames hissed out on the pavement, I gave her a smile and a nod and hurled myself upward. A quick push off a lamppost gave me some extra “ooomph” and I flew into the night. Less than three seconds and I was a hundred feet up.

    I glanced down and saw her still standing there in the middle of the street. She just stared up in amazement. I spread the cape, caught a faint breeze, and started gliding away. And then her shout echoed up to me.

    “Thank you!!!”

    And that’s how I became the Mighty Dragon.

    NOW – Two

    St. George balanced on the point of the water tower, the highest point on the lot, and looked down at the fake city.

    It was just a couple of buildings and a pair of short roads, and from this angle their facades were obvious. But compared to the rest of the Mount, New York Street looked normal. Normal and peaceful. It wasn’t unusual to find people wandering there, where they could walk two blocks on a sidewalk and pretend the world was still safe and made sense.

    He’d visited the Mount twice. Before, when it was just a film studio. A friend of a friend had gotten him on the lot years ago and they’d spent an afternoon walking the choked streets and alleys. At the time, it had seemed like the most amazing place in the world. He remembered the fake city from that visit.

    The second time had been at night, in costume. He’d stood on this very spot on top of the water tower and looked past the walls of the studio at the glowing expanse of Hollywood while the wind whipped his cape. He’d felt like an honest-to-God superhero.

    It all seemed so long ago.

    Just over the West building he could see the North-by-Northwest residential area. Close to a thousand people packed into less than a city block. Stage 15, on the far side of New York Street, has a large cluster of tents set up on the roof. Scavenged solar cells, water barrels, and gardens covered the rooftops.

    It had taken two months after they moved into the Mount, but most of the stages had been changed into mass housing. Now there were two dozen families living in each one. The plus side was they all had plenty of space and huge rooftops for private gardens. The downside was two dozen immediate neighbors and lack of privacy.

    As they’d all quickly discovered, lack of privacy was the killer. Over a hundred fights broke out the first week. Two of them ended in deaths. Stealth had thrown the murderers over the fence at the North Gower Gate. Their screams hadn’t lasted long, but the lesson had.

    He looked over his left shoulder. Far in the distance, halfway to the ocean, he could see the towers of Century City. They’d filmed one of the original Planet of the Apes movies there. Just off to the left, he could see a few thin lines of dark smoke trace paths in the crisp blue sky.

    People could say a lot of negative things about the apocalypse, but there was no arguing the air quality in Los Angeles had really improved.

    As a gust of wind came from the west, he turned from the film sets and hurled himself off the tower. He soared across what had once been a parking lot and pool for water movies. It had taken them two months to fill it in with all the potting soil and dirt they could scavenge from the Home Depot up on Sunset, plus a few drugstores, but now it was just under half an acre of farmland in the heart of the lot. Over a dozen people walked the rows of soybeans, spinach, and potatoes with watering cans. Their tired eyes looked up at the hero as he flew over them.

    He passed another rooftop and let himself drop between buildings. He could see himself reflected in Zukor’s mirrored windows before he landed on the narrow length of Avenue L. One of the guards in front of the hospital gave him a sharp nod, the other a lazy salute. The third man bowed his unusual head.

    Gorgon had struck St. George as shifty and underhanded from the day they’d first met, probably because he always hid his eyes. He did it for everyone else’s sake, but it still bothered people. A huge pair of mechanical goggles covered half of Gorgon’s face. A spinning iris of dark plastic made up each lens, mounted in a rim the size of a can of tuna. He hadn’t been as good about combing his hair or shaving since Banzai had died, and, wearing his leather duster, he looked like a Japanese cartoon character.

    A seven-pointed sheriff’s badge rode high on the duster’s lapel. Someone had dug it up from one of the prop or costume trailers. After Stealth’s lesson at the gate, Gorgon had taken it upon himself to patrol the streets, halls, and rooftops of the Mount. He wore the silver star with grim pride.

    “Morning,” he said.

    “Gorgon. Surprised to see you here.”

    “Had to make a drop-off. Fight in the mushroom farm.”

    “Again?”

    “The big guy, Mikkelson,” said one of the guards. “Throwing his weight around again, yelling about starving.”

    “I put him down,” said Gorgon. His head tilted a bit, a twitch, and let the lenses catch the light. “He hit his head on one of the trays and cut his forehead.”

    “Still weird to see you here,” said St. George with a half-smile.

    Gorgon coughed. “I was the only one who could carry him up the damned stairs. You know what the Stage Five farm’s like.”

    They all nodded.

    He swept down the sides of his trenchcoat and gave the sheriff’s badge a quick brush. “Anyway, I’ve got rounds to make and I’m behind now.” He tipped his head to St. George. “Watch yourself out there this afternoon.”

    “Hey, yeah,” said the other guard. He tipped his head after Gorgon. “Boss says all y’all’s going out today?”

    St. George nodded. “Sheets have been up for a few days. You didn’t see?”

    The man shook his head. He had a salt and pepper beard that added a dozen years to his face.

    “If your shift’s over by eleven, be at Melrose,” said the hero. “We can fit you in.”

    “I’ll be there.” The guard shifted the rifle on his shoulder.

    Another guard stood inside the door and gave him a nod. Zukor was the most heavily defended building on the lot. If an outbreak happened inside the walls, it would start here. Each emergency room had three armed guards and all the medical staff carried sidearms. If someone died, putting a bullet in their brain was a top priority.

    St. George paused at the large sign dominating the right-hand wall. Each of the letters was four inches tall. He’d memorized it at this point, but its sheer size made him look every time.

    The Adolph Zukor Building hadn’t always been the Mount’s hospital, but Stealth had pointed out they needed something more central and better equipped than the small first aid office off Avenue P. Deeper into the lobby was a statue of the man himself. St. George had moved it out of the way when they put the sign in.

    He found Doctor Connolly in her office. Roger Mikkelson was sprawled across the examination table, his head wedged in place with two rolled up towels. She tied off a fourth and final stitch in the man’s forehead and mopped up some blood with a piece of gauze.

    “Shouldn’t you use anesthetic or something when you do that?”

    A few streaks of silver highlighted Doctor Connolly’s crimson hair, and fine wrinkles marked the edges of her eyes. She’d been a medical researcher when they found her in the remains of Hollywood Presbyterian. Now she was in charge of their small hospital staff. “Anesthetic’s a limited resource,” she said, “and Gorgon told me I had at least half an hour before he regained consciousness.” She smiled and peeled off her gloves. “To what do I owe the honor?”

    He gestured up to the lights with his chin. “We’re going to have to put you on solar for a while. Barry’s coming out with us.”

    “How long?”

    “Four or five hours, tops. Do you have anything critical?”

    She shook her head. “Slow week.” She nodded at Mikkelson. “He’ll be out of here once he wakes up. We’ve just got a broken leg, a concussion, and a gunshot wound staying here tonight.”

    “Who got shot by who?”

    “Zekiel Reid, Luke’s brother. He nodded off on the Marathon roof with his finger on the trigger. Ricochet caught him in the calf.”

    “Idiot.”

    “Lucky idiot,” Connolly said. “At that range he could’ve blown his foot off. If the bullet got him in the thigh, he would’ve bled out hopping here.”

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    “You don’t sound too surprised.”

    She shrugged. “We’ve been seeing more and more accidents from the wall.”

    “You think they’re trying to get out of guard duty?”

    “I think they’re bored silly.”

    “Yeah. Who would’ve guessed survival would be so dull?”

    “To hell with that,” she snorted. “Who’d guess living in a movie studio would be so dull.”

    “When I get back I’ll see about setting up shorter shifts. I think Gorgon has a few people ready to go on active guard duty.”

    “Can I toss an idea at you? It’s something I’ve been thinking about.”

    “Sure.”

    She settled back against the wall. “Back before Nine-Eleven, I did a semester abroad in Egypt. Cairo American College. They were already nuts about security then. It took a serious effort to go anywhere and not have line of sight to a soldier or a police officer. Turns out they were having the same problem, though. All these men standing around for hours and hours every day with nothing happening. They were getting careless and having tons of accidents. Soldiers were shooting themselves in the leg or the foot. If they were on a tower they could even shoot people below them.”

    St. George nodded. “How’d they solve it?”

    “They stopped loading the guns.”

    He smiled. “I don’t think that’ll fly with Stealth.”

    Connolly shook her head. “They gave them ammo. They just didn’t let them stand around with it. They’d tape two clips together, one up, one down. That way the guns weren’t loaded, but all they had to do was flip the clips over and they’d be ready to go.”

    “And you just happened to notice all that?”

    “I was fifteen years younger, twenty pounds lighter, and traveling alone.” She gave him a smirk. “Men talked to me about anything they could think of.”

    Across from them, Mikkelson groaned and twitched. A shiver passed through him and a slow hand reached up to feel his stitches.

    “I hear it’s like having one of the worst hangovers of your life,” she said with a nod at the shuddering man.

    “That it is. Any other news?”

    “I think we’ve made a small breakthrough with the ex-virus. Nothing ground-breaking, from a practical point of view, but I’ll know for sure when some tests finish up this afternoon.”

    He nodded.

    Mikkelson almost fell off the table and swore under his breath. He stood on wobbly legs, took in a breath to start shouting, and saw St. George. The hero gave him a slow nod. “Problem, Roger?”

    “I just wanted a couple extra mushrooms,” he muttered. “I was hungry. What the fuck’s the big deal?”

    “I think when you take stuff that’s not yours they call it stealing.”

    “They’re fucking mushrooms.”

    “They’re food. You want more rations, you bring it up at your district meeting.”

    “Whatever. What would you know about it? You don’t even eat.” He rubbed his stitches and pushed past them into the hall.

    “You want to leave those alone,” said the doctor. “Come back in a few days and I’ll take them out.”

    He waved a dismissive arm back at her.

    “Roger,” St. George called down the hall. “This is two strikes for you. Next time it’s not me or Gorgon. You’ll have to deal with Stealth.”

    The big man gave them another glance, but his eyes softened. He shoved his hands in his pockets and clomped down the stairs.

    Connolly glanced at St. George. “You do eat, don’t you?”

    “God, yes,” he said. “I dreamed about ultimate cheeseburgers last night. A big pile of them, all warm and wrapped in paper. I’d kill for some meat these days.”

    She laughed. “One other thing?”

    “Sure.”

    “Can you talk to Josh? I think it would mean a lot to him.”

    “Why?”

    “He’s getting depressed again.”

    “I mean, why would it mean anything coming from me? Heck, at this point you probably know him better than I do.”

    “I do,” she said with a nod. “And that’s why I think he still relates better to you than he does to me. Not to swell your head or anything, but he used to be one of you and now he’s just one of us.”

    “Wow. How super-phobic of you.”

    She smiled. “Did you just make that up?”

    “No, I heard Ty O’Neill use it once. You know it’s a hell of a lot more than just losing his powers, right?”

    “I know,” she said. “But there’s only so much I can deal with. The dead wife I can relate to. Loss of god-like powers…” She shrugged.

    He sighed. “Yeah, okay. Where is he?”

    “In the infirmary. Doing his rounds.”

    “Ahhh,” said George. “Spreading his cheer and goodwill to all the patients.”

    * * * *

    The man once known as Regenerator stood by a hospital bed, checking his patient’s chart. His right hand rested in the wide pocket of his lab coat and a purple stethoscope dangled around his neck. The young man in the bed was out cold, his lower leg bound tight with white gauze.

    St. George cleared his throat. “What’s up, Doc?”

    Josh Garcetti glanced up from the chart. “Hey,” he said. Without moving his pocketed hand he hung the clipboard at the end of the bed and held out his left. “Long time no see. What’ve you been up to?”

    St. George caught the awkward hand and shook it. “Trying to survive the end of the world. You?”

    “Same thing, smaller scale.” He made no attempt at a smile. The two men were close to the same age, the same height, but even slumped Josh’s shoulders were broader. Like so many people these days, his hair had gone gray years before it should have, and a few strands of pure white highlighted the mop. In white makeup, he could’ve passed for a somber Greek statue. In the lab coat, he was almost spectral. They walked back to the hallway. “Heard you’re heading out later today.”

    “Around eleven.”

    “Who’s going with?”

    “Cerberus and Barry. I just came over to tell Connolly you’ll be on solar all afternoon.”

    The doctor nodded and leaned against a set of file cabinets. A beat passed. Then another.

    “You should come out some time.”

    Josh shook his head. “No. Thanks for the offer, but no.”

    “I think it’d do you some good.”

    “How?”

    “You haven’t gone out once. Hell, have you even been near an ex since…?” St. George paused again before giving an awkward nod at the pocketed hand.

    “Not really, no.”

    “We could use you out there. You’ve got experience.”

    “I have experience in field hospitals,” he said with a shake of his head. “I was never much of a fighter. Just good at not getting hurt.”

    “You were good at making sure no one else got hurt, too.”

    “No,” he said. His face hardened. “No I wasn’t.”

    “Fuck. You know I didn’t mean it like that.”

    He closed his eyes. “I know. Sorry.”

    “It’s coming up on two years, isn’t it?”

    “Yeah. Eleven more days.”

    “You know…” said St. George as he edged out onto the emotional thin ice, “last year things were still pretty hectic. You want to get a drink or something? Talk? We could get Barry, Gorgon, maybe even convince Danielle to take the damned armor off.”

    Josh turned to the cabinet behind the counter and examined the contents with sudden interest. “Again, thanks but no. I’m just going to stay home. Besides, Gorgon wouldn’t want to see me.”

    “It wasn’t your fault.”

    “Let’s just drop it, okay?” He massaged his temple with two fingers.

    “You should really come out, though.”

    Josh opened his eyes. “Look, it’s a nice thought, but let’s face it. I’m too much of a distraction out there.” He pulled his other hand out of the lab coat’s wide pocket. “Everyone’ll just be looking at the damned bite instead of watching their own asses.”

    As he raised the hand the sleeve sagged a bit and revealed part of his withered forearm. The flesh was pale and splotched with gray. Dark veins ran into his palm and met up with yellowed fingernails. The teeth marks were still visible, a semicircle of ragged holes just beneath his wrist.

    For the first few months of his superhero career Josh Garcetti called himself the Immortal. He could heal from wounds in less time than it took to make them. Fire, bullets, broken limbs—he laughed at all of them. Then he discovered how to share his healing factor with others and he became Regenerator.

    Then his wife died. And then the world went to hell. And then an ex bit his right hand. In one of the last field hospitals, as everyone pulled out and all the last-ditch emergency plans kicked in, a dead cop rolled over on the slab and sunk his teeth into Regenerator. Put him in a coma for three weeks, but it didn’t kill him and he didn’t change. For the past fourteen months his healing factor had done nothing but keep the infection from spreading past his bicep.

    St. George tried not to stare at the hand. “You can’t hide in here forever, Josh.”

    “Of course I can,” he said. “What do you think we’re all doing?”

    They looked at each other for a moment. The hero made a noise that was half snort and half sigh, accompanied by a puff of black smoke.

    “Look,” said the doctor, “I’ve got some immunizations to get ready for and an inventory to do. It was good seeing you, George. Be careful out there, okay?” He worked the hand back into its pocket, gave a faint bow with his head, and walked away.

    * * * *

    This preview for was provided and published with express permission from Permuted Press.

    Ex-Heroes is available now at Amazon.com.

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