When I was first told of Peter Clines' Ex-Heroes, my curiosity was piqued by its premise. And now, thanks to the folks at Broadway Paperbacks, here's an excerpt from the book. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes, using their superhuman abilities to make Los Angeles a better place. Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Billions died, civilization fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland. Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions protect a last few thousand survivors in their film-studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. Scarred and traumatized by the horrors they’ve endured, the heroes fight the armies of ravenous ex-humans at their citadel’s gates, lead teams out to scavenge for supplies—and struggle to be the symbols of strength and hope the survivors so desperately need. But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the city’s ruins. And just a few miles away, another group is slowly amassing power . . . led by an enemy with the most terrifying ability of all.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.