Ruth slammed through a metal security hatch. Solid steel met Ruth’s super strength and speed, and it shredded like tinfoil. From Ruth’s perspective, the world was frozen in time. Soldiers were posed in action – walking through halls, manning their posts, and otherwise going about the daily business of staffing a nuclear missile silo. None of them would be aware of the super hero in their midst. Only later – instantaneous in their perception, but many long seconds in Ruth’s – would they experience her intrusion: ruined passageways and an obliterated weapon.
Racing deep into the heart of the facility, she found the apocalyptic missile she was looking for. An unfortunate man, holding a cup of coffee and dressed in an officer’s uniform, stood in a door she needed to use. There wasn’t room to move past him. Nor was there time to pause.
She did her very best, but felt the contact, and cursed. He would feel nothing. The energy of her speed would transfer into him like dynamite, and his men would find his remains covering the wall, ceiling, and floor. To her, it was nothing but a passing touch of her hip against his.
It was a horrible but unavoidable sacrifice.
Fluorescent lights illuminated the industrial scaffolding before her. Rails terminated in single-point perspective at her destination: a three-story tall intercontinental ballistic missile awakening in its silo. She plowed into it with both fists outstretched. The smooth metal body rent like tissue, and the rocket engine beneath crumpled. As she exited the missile she twisted in mid-air and slammed feet-first into the concrete wall on the other side. Her impact sent cracks spiderwebbing in all directions. The resulting earthquake would shake the entire facility.
She lunged back through the hole she had made. The officer she had killed no longer occupied the exit. He had been erased, and in his place was a vaguely man-shaped red mist. She passed through the blood, resigned in the fact that she could do no more harm than she already had. Crimson droplets streaked off of her, leaving a gruesome wake through the facility.
“I’m sorry I could not move him in time.” The manifestation of Psyche’s words in Ruth’s mind corresponded with the telepathic revelation of Ruth’s next target – another ICBM silo in Colorado. There were thousands. Each one represented millions of deaths, and many were already preparing to launch. Some were already in the air.
“I understand.” Ruth replied needlessly. Psyche already knew that Ruth comprehended what was at stake, and that one life was a necessary cost. The god-like telepath had filled her with a total awareness of what was happening all around the earth. The first shots in a new world war had been fired. If not for Psyche, those shots would also be the last. She had bet on Ruth as possessing both the power and the willingness to help her. Together, they might stave off the apocalypse.
For months, tensions around the world had risen to a crescendo. World leaders had committed to posturing and provocation instead of compromise and understanding. The Doomsday Clock maintained by the world’s atomic scientists had inched ever closer to midnight.
It was now many minutes past that terrible abstract midnight. Ruth had been bounding through missile silos, crushing the terrible weapons within, and moving on to the next for nearly an hour – a lifetime for a speedster like her. Psyche, who herself had plucked the information from anyone on earth who possessed it, trickled their locations into Ruth’s mind one after the other. If any nuclear missiles were unknown to her, they were in the Dark Spots created by other super-powered psychers who carefully guarded those secrets.
“How many are in the air?” Ruth asked as she plowed into and out of another target. This time she had managed to avoid touching anyone – leaving only merciful ruin in her trail.
“Five.” Psyche replied.
“Where are they going?” Ruth compartmentalized her conversation with Psyche. As each new nuclear missile location bloomed within her thoughts the destruction she wrought became a blur in her memory. Many innocent soldiers – like the officer who had inadvertently blocked her path, and had absorbed the kinetic energy of her passing – would die because of her. But it was their lives, or the lives of everyone on earth.
“You cannot stop the missiles in the air. Focus on what you can do.” Replied Psyche calmly.
Ruth felt Psyche’s intrusion into parts of her thoughts that were not devoted to the task at hand and recoiled. “Don’t do that!” She barked.
“I’m sorry.” Psyche’s influence withdrew from the deepest parts of Ruth’s consciousness, and released a flood of emotions – unproductive but necessary emotions – that Psyche had been repressing. Ruth’s eyes welled as she dismantled the next weapon and the next. Her tears stretched from one silo to another suspended in a thousands-of-miles-long wake of despair.
Earlier in the evening, Psyche had roused Ruth from her sleep with a telepathic infusion of knowledge. It had taken Ruth a few minutes to process the gravity of the information that had been thrust upon her. The creation of new synapses within her brain needed to be integrated into the whole, and that had taken a few eternal minutes. Once that had happened, Ruth remained paralyzed by conflicting thoughts and feelings. A singular consideration rose above all else – there was no time.
There was no time to reverse the horrible choices that had been made by leaders across the world.
There was no time for discussion with other super heroes.
No time to resent Psyche for her telepathic intrusion.
No time to dress.
No time to kiss her wife Kara goodbye.
Those moments had been enough to put five missiles in the air. Millions of lives were lost to Ruth’s indecision. The guilt filled her, but also fueled her. She sprang into action.
She snatched a headset in vain hopes of getting help.
Her nightgown fell away under the punishing gale.
Kara awoke to an empty bed.
Now, the West Coast gave way to the Pacific Ocean. The water was as solid as the earth to her super-sonic footfalls. Behind her was a five-story tall plume of steam and water. Before her was the continental Asian dawn. Beneath the infinite blue waves lurked countless submarines preparing to launch their own apocalyptic cargo. Psyche had not bothered to share their location. Swimming, even at super-speed was the equivalent of digging through stone. It could be done, but not at a rate necessary to avert calamity.
“You are not alone. Leviathan and Yam are with us. They will do what they can to disable the submarines.” Psyche said, knowing Ruth’s thoughts.
“Disable? You mean destroy.” Ruth attempted to take an angry tone. Neither Leviathan nor Yam were known to be particularly merciful or cautious heroes. They would crush each vessel, tear them open, or slam them into rocks without regard for the helpless crews within.
She wanted to be furious at Psyche, but failed. Time allowed only for cold brutality, and Psyche had wisely asked the right supers for help – including her.
“There was no time.” Psyche responded with the mantra that had become Ruth’s singular understanding of the world.
“Ruth!” Came a familiar voice in her headset. “Stop! You are killing us! What are you doing?”
She knew General Edict – the commander of North American Super Heroes – had spoken those words mere minutes ago. An eternity.
By the time military personnel had realized that the American nuclear arsenal was being disabled… By the time they had contacted General Edict… by the time Edict had realized who was responsible… by the time the soundwaves from his voice box had reached the microphone… by the time the sound had been converted to a signal… by the time that signal had found her headset… the question may as well be a fossilized artifact of a forgotten era, yet Ruth was compelled to answer.
“Billions of lives are at stake!” She screamed back at him as the water beneath her became Chinese soil. In the same breath she slammed through a lineup of missile trucks tucked away upon a mountain pass. Their weapons were pointed skyward – the thrusters red with the glow of igniting rocket fuel. The soldiers who guarded the trucks were statues whose perception of their environment would go from nervous anticipation to flaming ruin.
“You’re killing us!” Edict repeated.
Ruth ignored him.
“Six.” Psyche’s dispassionate telepathic tone conveyed the next nuclear missile site to Ruth along with information she had not intended to share. Another missile had launched.
Psyche was dealing with too much. She was monitoring a mental map of nuclear weapons while directing Ruth at super-speed over thousands of miles. She was trying to keep innocent soldiers out of harm’s way – Ruth’s way – and searching for notions of a new launch somewhere on earth. She was psychically informing other heroes who might be able to stop a missile in the air. She was also protecting Ruth from psychic attack.
Paladins – The Asian, European, African, and Australian federation of Supers – were bringing telepathy, as well as teleportation, clairvoyance, precognition, and other powers Ruth could scarcely imagine, to bear upon her.
General Edict’s Alliance was doing the same – though they could not know that she was now working on destroying the Paladin arsenal. Information moved too slowly.
“Where is it headed?” Ruth asked.
“You cannot stop it. Focus on what you can do.” Psyche repeated.
Ruth sprinted over the mountains of Korea and Russia, shattering missile silos and launch pads.
“Seven.” Psyche let slip again.
“Tell me where it’s going!” Ruth demanded.
“You cannot stop it.” Psyche remained firm.
Ruth dashed through Indian hills and Pakistani forests, bulldozing nuclear trucks as she went.
“Eight.” Came Psyche’s next slip with a vision of Supers across the world mobilizing against Ruth. Giants, sorcerers, fallen gods, technological wizards, caped champions, and cloaked crusaders were dropping whatever they were doing to intercept missiles or hunt for the rogue super who had crippled the military arsenal. Most moved far too slowly to be of any concern, others might be just fast enough to defend the European missiles that were Ruth’s next targets.
“What if…” Ruth began.
“They won’t!” Psyche replied with a strain in her tone that Ruth had never heard before.
Ruth rushed through Turkey and Belgium, Italy and Germany, France and Britain. The weapons that America and Russia had shared over the decades seemed endless. Each one was armed and pointed skyward in the moment of its destruction.
There was no sign of super-powered resistance. Ruth careened through site after site with a desperation born of the apocalypse.
And then the messages stopped.
Psyche had infused her with one goal after another – thousands upon thousands of missions with potential for unspeakable holocaust. Sometimes the telepathic message had come with an unintended tidbit of Psyche’s consciousness. Other times it came with feelings of dread or near-overwhelming anxiety. When another did not arrive, Ruth continued to sprint. She was lost on what to do next.
“Is that all?” She asked, her heart skipping a beat at the notion that Psyche might have been killed – overwhelmed by her own effort, or murdered by Supers.
“Yes.” Psyche replied curtly.
Ruth was momentarily relieved, but still determined. “Where are the launched missiles headed!” Ruth again demanded, unwilling to rest while the fate of millions remained uncertain.
“Los Angeles.” Psyche answered.
The prospect of worldwide nuclear annihilation was replaced by the impending death of a city.
“What about the other seven. Is anyone doing anything?” Ruth launched herself towards a new destination. In moments, the Atlantic Ocean sprawled before her, and she plunged into the night with renewed determination.
“Yes.” Psyche said again, this time with an empathic hint of sorrow.
“That… that’s good.” Ruth absorbed Psyche’s fear, and understood. Some of the airborne missiles would be stopped. Some would not. “I can help.”
“You can’t.” Psyche replied. “You have done what you can.”
“No! I can do this! I just destroyed all the world’s nuclear weapons. I can save one city.”
“The missile is already in the air. You cannot fly.” Psyche’s tone was both fearful and sad – a recognition of a monumental failure amidst an epic success. Billions had been saved, yet millions would still die.
“Ruth? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, please come home.” Kara came over her headset. “They’re looking for you. If you turn yourself in you’ll be ok. They promise you’ll be ok, but you have to come home.”
Kara was a speedster like Ruth, and was perhaps one of the few supers on earth who might catch her. Unlike Ruth, Kara lacked super strength. She could never hope to stop Ruth physically, and would never try. It was smart that General Edict had chosen to employ Kara in this manner. Like Edict’s first communication, Kara’s was millennia behind Ruth’s present.
Again, Ruth was compelled to reply.
“I did it, Kara!” Ruth attempted to summon joy even as she sprinted towards another calamitous task. “I saved the world!”
She then considered whether she should give voice to her next words – whether the risk was too great, or if Edict would see reason. “There’s a bomb headed towards Los Angeles. I’m going to try to stop it. Tell him I’ll turn myself in after that.”
The Atlantic Ocean ended and Canada began. Darkness cloaked the countryside, and there was a long stretch of tranquility that masked the world-wide chaos.
Psyche was quiet – though Ruth knew that she would be long-dead if Psyche had somehow become disabled or otherwise revoked the Dark Spot that protected her from malicious telepaths.
“How are you going to stop it?” Kara’s headset signal stabilized, and her voice came through clearly. Their conversation was approaching real-time – save for any technological latency.
“I haven’t really figured that out. Any ideas?” Ruth added a chuckle for levity, but Kara knew her too well.
“We can’t save L.A.” Edict’s stern voice came over the network. “We intercepted New York and Chicago. We have a team on San Diego. Just turn yourself in.”
“I can save L.A!” Ruth responded angrily. “I’m almost there.”
The Rocky Mountains rose into view before a starry backdrop.
“How?” Kara’s question was filled with dread.
“I’ll… I’ll run up a vertical surface and smash through the missile while it’s in the air.” Ruth gave voice to a plan that sounded like it might work.
“What if you miss?” Ruth heard Kara choke back tears. She banished the thought of her crying wife from her mind as Los Angeles skyscrapers came into view.
“I won’t miss.” Ruth beheld a long contrail originating from a glowing point of light above the city. The missile was directly above Los Angeles – far closer than Ruth had anticipated… though like all things in her hyper-fast world it was nearly frozen in stasis.
“If you miss you’ll be suspended in the air above the bomb. You’ll have nothing to push off of. No way to run.” Kara’s words came from years of experience that knew death all too well. Tragedy always lurked about the perimeter of super hero life, but they had always faced that possibility together, until now.
“Please come back.”
“I have to try.” Ruth sped through the streets of the city. Motionless pedestrians gaped at the approaching light – perhaps vaguely comprehending it’s meaning. Unmoving cars upon the street contained occupants that were oblivious to impending doom.
“Please.” Kara pled.
Ruth found a building that looked to be beneath the missile and hurled herself upwards. The impact of her footfalls shattered earthquake-proof glass and sent shards erupting into the air behind her.
“Please don’t.” Kara’s voice trembled.
When she reached the top, Ruth flung herself off the building and into flight towards the bomb. “I’m up.” She said.
The missile grew larger as she approached. Thirty-feet long, and marked with Russian words she could not read, its glowing engines shone brightly against the night sky. Its tip was pointed menacingly at the city below.
With subtle tilts of her arms and hands Ruth steered herself towards her target. Her jump had been perfect.
“Did you hit it?” The terror in Kara’s voice was mingled with hope.
“I’m about to.” Ruth replied.The speed at which she collided with the missile was almost too much for her to process. She slammed through metal in an explosion of debris that tailed her ascent.
“I hit it!” She shouted.
“I… I… Oh my god! You hit it!” Kara screamed over the headset.
Ruth could hear cheers erupt from the behind Kara. Edict’s command center was monitoring the situation, and might have even seen her in action via satellite. Ruth spun around in the air, and looked down at the city.
“You hit it!” Kara continued screaming. “I love you!”
Ruth looked for the remains of the bomb and followed the wreckage of the missile and the contrail to their point of intersection. The weapon was damaged and canted awkwardly from her strike. As she reached the peak of her ascent, she gradually slipped from stasis into real time. A dreadful fact became evident. The warhead was still intact.
“I love you, too.” Ruth replied. Her mind raced for options, but found none.
For a brief moment before gravity reclaimed her, Ruth became weightless. The city lights blanketed the earth. Darkness swathed the ocean to the West and the mountains to the East.
“Come home.” Kara wept. “You saved the city! You saved the world! Everything is going to be ok.”
Cars moved through the streets, and people walked along the sidewalks. Ruth had returned to a world that moved with her in lockstep.
“I love you.” Ruth replied. “I’m sorry.”
A flash brighter than the most radiant sun eclipsed the city below.
© 2020 by Mark Rivett
Author’s Note: I recently read an article about the artists who created super heroes as an outlet to fight the injustice they saw in the world. Many problems of the era, such as the rise of Hitler or systemic racism, seemed too big to be tackled by the average person. These artists created characters that were able to face these challenges head on. I wanted to write a story about a modern character who could do the same, while alluding to some of the classic tropes of comic book stories.
Mark Rivett has professional experience as an educator, digital artist, and application developer. Mark began living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1997, but now resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition to a background in digital technology, Mark is fascinated by the macabre and his writing is inspired by the horror and suspense genre.