Strange

First of the North

By Phoebe Barton
4,040 words · 15-minute reading time
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No shit, there I was, back on that bridge. That was how it had to be. That was how she always was, walking the path between the sea and the sky, waiting for someone to try to feed the waves.

She'd spent four hours on patrol, marching from one end of the bridge to the other while the sun sank behind the mountains, and no one had passed by who wasn't passing through. If no one needed her it would be a good night; it meant they were solving their problems. Heroes like Alpha Borealis couldn't be everywhere.

No shit. The world never had enough heroes even when people could understand it.

"Go on, jump!” She whirled around. Had she missed someone? If she'd been on the wrong side of the bridge, there could've been more than enough time for someone to slip through, but there was just a man on a bicycle, pedaling hard. "Fly, you freak!"

Would that I had wings to beat the air, and claws to tear your eyes out...

She leaned against the guardrail as he whipped by and watched him go with a pitying look. It was just as well there was nobody around thinking about one last dive into the cold, hard Pacific. Maybe the earthquake would come before he could get off the bridge. Then they'd both learn how to fly.

"You've not a thing to complain about!” her landlord said as she ran a finger across the countertops. "You stayed here this whole last month for free, you should be thanking me!"

Oh, thanks for doing what you're legally obligated to do, how will I ever repay you? Alpha Borealis thought but didn't say. Whatever snark she could summon wasn't worth a cent of her security deposit. All she could do was savor the last few minutes under a roof that had never really been hers.

"Place is a bit dirty, don't you think?” the landlord said. "Going to have to bring in the cleaners. It'll have to come out of what you paid."

Bullshit, Alpha Borealis thought. Inside of two weeks the whole building would be gutted so it could be resold as high-class strata property. No one would ever cook in her kitchen again, sleep in her bedroom, plan heroics while gazing out her window. No renter would ever claw back a full security deposit once it was in the landlord's fist. "I suppose."

At least there was no fake conversation. She knew well enough the landlord didn't care about her as anything but a money supply, and once management had decided software could do her department's job without any questions of overtime or vacation pay, that supply had been choked off. One potential question: when are you moving into your new place? The only answer: I'm not. She had her phone, her sleeping bag, a change of clothes and her costume. The furniture had come with the apartment. After that pink slip, everything had disappeared into food, rent, and that security deposit like a world sucked into a black hole.

She watched the landlord frown at invisible scuffs on the cupboard doors and grumble at a fridge she'd spent a full hour scrubbing until its insides shone. Her acting wouldn't pass muster at the Columbia, but she played to an audience of one and the box office didn’t give refunds.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to retain your deposit," the landlord said after making a show of the inspection. "Here's the report. I'm just going to need your signature."

For a moment she contemplated refusal, or signing her heroic name--there was no government that recognized "Alpha Borealis" as anything but a character in a short-lived webcomic--but she couldn't; she was no villain. Superheroes dealt with the world they were given. She signed with her ordinary name, picked up her bag, and walked out beneath the cloudy roof of the sky.

"So what would your superpower be?"

They shared a bench in the soggy park, umbrellas between them and the drizzle, her costume packed away. Anyone passing by would see unremarkable people leading an unremarkable life. Nobody wanted to gawk at a superhero made of wet paper.

"I never really thought about it," Alpha Borealis said. "Didn't figure there's a point."

"You serious?” The King of All Crows snorted and tossed another handful of peanuts to the birds gathered on the ground. "You call yourself a superhero and you have no idea what you'd be if you actually were one."

"You first, then," she said. As far as appearances went, the King of All Crows already looked like a superhero trying to blend in among ordinary people, with his black tie and office-casual shirt offset by hair dyed sky blue. It was a costume, just as much as her blues-and-whites--these days, there were one or two jobs for every ten people their age.

"I've already got the crows, I think anything else would be pushing it," the King said. He threw out another handful and chuckled to himself. "Though I wouldn't mind being able to talk to them. Get them to dive-bomb the mayor, the Prime Minister, that sort of thing. Part of the fun of having subjects is having them work for you. Now come on, it's your turn. Spill it."

"I...” The webcomic version of Alpha Borealis had powers to spare, flight and strength and true direction and the blinding brightness of the North Star, everything the last daughter of a dead world would need. They'd make for compelling stories when the character was set against appropriate villains, but in this humdrum, rain-soaked ordinary world of bicycle lanes and grocery delivery? "I don't know, man. I could never figure that out. It never seemed important."

"I hear that," the King said between peanuts. "Patrolling the city like you stepped out from between covers, acting like you're the sharp point of truth and justice, that's important."

"It's all I've fucking got!” She hadn't expected to shout; it wasn't anything she hadn't heard before. Real-life superheroes had been patrolling streets and pepper-spraying fistfights since before she'd been born, but it still had a whiff of ridiculousness in the public eye. "You want to know what kind of superpower I'd have? Fine! I'd have the superpower to have a fucking job! Something they can't automate away!"

She grabbed for the bag of peanuts and cast a handful across the grass like a shotgun blast.

"Hell, I'd even be happy with ten hours," she said. "Call me Part-Time Woman. Just to be able to do something. It's the Disrupted camp for me, I guess. All those people, they must have some work for volunteers, at least."

The King was quiet for a moment, then handed her a business card of a crowned crow, with phone number and email address. "I go back with one of the coordinators. This might give you an edge. If that's my superpower today, it'll be enough."

"Kind of pathetic, isn't it?” she said with a smile and a shake of her head. "That our expectations are this low."

"That's our world," the King said. "Not a place for the proud."

She tucked the card into her pocket and threw more peanuts to the crows.

It was just as well Alpha Borealis couldn't fly. The Disrupted Vancouver camp, brimming with everyone who’d realized they had nothing left to lose by tearing capitalism down, was hard enough to endure when she could only see what was in front of her; to take it in all at once from above, with a voice whispering in her ears you have powers, but not to end this, would strain the finest of heroes. There were hundreds of people crammed into the park, and while the demonstrators on the periphery hoisted their signs and chanted their slogans to catch the attention of whoever passed by, inside that ring of righteous anger the grass had been stomped flat by people who'd been left behind. There were camps like it in hundreds of cities across the world, overflowing with despair, smelling of stale bodies and marijuana and vanished hope.

She saw the campers' stories in their eyes as she passed through on patrol--the cab driver whose taxi drove itself, the shop clerk who'd been replaced by holograms and software, the office worker whose computers did their own work, young adults like her who'd grown up to be told they were appendixes--kept around for old time's sake, but without any purpose. Police kept watch from behind riot shields on the sidelines and through their faintly-whirring drones, hovering a beyond the range of thrown bottles or stones, but she had no doubt there were spies among the campers. Her phone still rumbled intermittently with the "you are participating in an unlawful demonstration" texts, spoofed to look like they'd been sent by friends, loved ones, anyone but the cops. She'd long since learned to ignore them.

"Alpha!” Jill the coffeejack's voice cut through the camp, earthy and strong as the drinks she gave out. She wheeled her bashed-together mobile coffeehouse through the tight quarters, the beat-up serving ladles clattering against the cart in cacophonous symphony. "You need some of this, Alpha. Keep you sharp. All that patrolling takes its toll on a body, you know."

"I'm fine, thanks," Alpha Borealis said. It would hardly have been a Vancouver protest without coffee in abundance, but she had never found much of a taste for the stuff. Her first sip of Jill's special blend hadn't left her missing anything. "There are others who need it more."

"One of these days your face is going to tell a different story," Jill said. "You should start wearing a mask. Why don't you wear a mask? I mean, not like I need it to recognize you in that getup. All the superheroes down in Seattle went masked."

"Different world," Alpha said. It was a long time since the days of people like Phoenix Jones. "Besides, you think I want the cops on my case? Mask'd mean I have something to hide, and there's a billion ways they could see who's underneath. That's our world."

"You always know how to cheer someone up, Alpha," Jill said. "True superhero.” Shaking her head, she wheeled her cart away, and Alpha Borealis continued on. There were adults to reassure, kids to smile at, a ridiculous four-color costume to wear.

"Hey, Cape, you got a minute?” A man about her age peeked out from under a tent flap. "I'm having a bit of trouble, wondering if you can take a looksee."

"Of course.” The camp's coordinators had loved the idea of her patrolling in costume--not just that her blues-and-whites made it easy to pick her out of a crowd, but because she was a reminder of a world better than the one they were all mired in, a symbol of justice that didn't report to the wingtip oligarchs kicking them in the ass. She stepped into the tent--the usual half-emptiness, half-clutter. "How can I help?"

"You can get on the fucking ground now.” She spun around to find the man pointing a weapon at her--a gun, and not the stunning kind. "Now, god dammit!"

The instant stretched like a rubber band that refused to break no matter how far it was pulled. She'd had knives pulled on her in the past, but she'd learned how to disarm when she could and retreat when she couldn't, and her old anti-stab vest had done her well before she'd sold it for rent money. A real superhero could have stared down its barrel and laughed. A real superhero could've put her hands on her hips and listen to the bullets bounce off her invulnerable skin. A real superhero could have done something, but there was no real superhero in the tent. There was only Alpha Borealis, a woman who preferred the life of a refugee from a dead world to the one she'd been born into, and a rubber band that was about to snap.

She got on the fucking ground.

"You're making a mistake," she said. "I'm camp security, I'm--"

"You're under arrest," the man said. "Hands behind your back or you're dead. Do it, now."

The cops. Of course. With so many out of work, police departments across the world had more business than they could handle keeping the lid on dissent. Hell, that bastard Vispeck down south had refined suppression into a science, a whole country made into a lab for injustice. They'd never got on well with people running around in costumes.

She put her hands behind her back, and the cop spy bound them with a cold, sharp zip tie that ate away at her wrists. A real superhero would've been able to break it like wet paper. All she could do was watch and frown at the cop as he stood with one hand over his throat--subvocal radio, likely enough--and listen as the ordinary background noise of the camp was buried by shouts, distant at first but coming closer, and then the drones spoke as one.

"YOU ARE PARTICIPATING IN AN UNLAWFUL DEMONSTRATION," boomed the voice of authority from on high. Anything light enough to throw would be thrown up at them, no matter how many skulls they might crack on the way down. "YOU ARE ORDERED TO DISPERSE IMMEDIATELY, FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY. IF YOU DO NOT DISPERSE YOU WILL BE SUBJECT TO IMMEDIATE ARREST."

Alpha Borealis imagined those drones thundering down on Vancouver, New York, London, Mexico City, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin--any city where people tried to stand up. It was the sort of thing a supervillain might have done to solidify world conquest, and that battle had been lost before she'd even been born. She imagined the cops sweeping into the camp, an unstoppable tide of guns and body armor and authority for authority's sake. It would wash over them all, and when it retreated there'd be nothing left of any of them.

No shit, there I was, and I couldn’t do jack but watch.

Some superhero she was.

The only kindness they'd shown her was letting her keep wearing the costume--the kindness of reminding her how much of a failure she'd become. They'd stuffed most of the camp's residents into some dank warehouse converted into a holding center, full of foul smells and dripping pipes and a chill that flayed her skin. The shouters, the fighters, the folk still willing to stand, they'd been filtered out by the cops early on and were probably getting worked over in some soundproofed box. The ones who were left mumbled, groaned, sobbed into the wet concrete, and they'd stay there until judged sufficiently broken to cause no more trouble.

The cops hadn't left them much space, but it was enough to patrol. Enough to struggle in the cold silence. Her costume wasn't worth much, but at least her boots were warm. Only a few of the campers raised their heads to watch her go by, and most of them looked away when she noticed their attention--and why shouldn't they? She wasn't a hero. She wasn't a defender. All her pretentions of working for justice had evaporated under authority's hot air.

She recognized Jill the coffeejack curled up in a corner and went to her. Jill received her with half a smile, her lips bruised and face streaked with dried blood.

"I guess we fucked up, huh," Jill said. "Guess we were all a bunch of idiots."

"Don't talk like that," Alpha Borealis said. "Are you all right?"

"I'm still living," Jill said. "Glad to see you're doing fine--I hear they really go to town on people who aren't white as the caps. Don't worry. It'll be fine in the end. This'll all be over."

"Not soon enough," Alpha said. "It's my fault, I--"

"Don't be an idiot," Jill said. "Unless you really can shoot lasers from your hands and you've just been holding back. That'd irritate me just a little bit."

"I should have been better," Alpha said. She kneeled on the hard floor, and imperfections in the concrete started wearing away at her knees through her thin suit. "I should've been able to do something, but I just... I couldn't see any way out. It was my responsibility and I fucked it up."

"You're not really an alien from Polaris, you know," Jill said. "You're still human. Still allowed to fuck up from time to time. Better this than trying to be a hero and getting blood all over that getup."

"Yeah.” Don't try to be a hero, the world whispered in her ear every minute of every day. Inside the warehouse prison, there was nothing to stop it echoing off the walls, getting louder and louder. Just keep your eyes on the ground. Left foot, right foot. Don't fall into any holes. Don't look around, because you won't like what you see and there's nothing you can do about it anyway.

"ATTENTION," boomed one of the many speakers hanging from the roof. "THE FOLLOWING WILL REPORT FOR PROCESSING.” Half a dozen names followed, and Alpha Borealis recognized one as her own. Jill gave her a mischievous grin, but with her injuries it looked more like a grimace.

"Not the sort of name I would've expected," she said. "Go on, good luck. See you on the other side."

A pair of cops waited at the door, counting off the prisoners as they filed meekly by. Their faces were hidden behind polarized visors and bodies hardened by armor meant for intimidation as much as protection. Was that someone's girlfriend underneath it all, or a dedicated family man? Did they go home at night and spin tales of how they were the next best things to superheroes, protecting the world from chaos? Could they have gotten along if they'd met on a bridge? None of it mattered. With that armor and those guns hanging naked on their belts, they had all the superpowers they needed.

"Door number five," one of the cops said when she identified herself. "Don't go in the wrong one. You wouldn't like what happens."

She entered a corridor barely warmer than the room she'd left, with concrete walls and fluorescent lights flickering on and off, and a half-dozen doors with papers taped to them. Behind door number five she found another cop sitting behind a metal desk, a man with greying hair and a sour expression. He motioned to an empty chair, and she sat to find it unbalanced and freezing cold.

"You're in a pigsty's worth of trouble, little miss superhero," the cop said. "Participation in an unlawful assembly, resisting arrest, antisocial activities from here to next Wednesday... your future isn't looking too hot, you understand?"

"It sounds that way.” Of course it would, coming from a cop. She wondered how many of the other campers would be staring at charges of assaulting an officer's fists with their face. "A pigsty."

"Enough for you to go away for a few years, once you run it all together," the cop said. "They don't have much use for costumes behind bars, you know. Maybe that's where you belong, really. Maybe I shouldn't even bother giving you an alternative."

"What kind of alternative?"

"Just a simple statement," the cop said. "Acknowledgement that you participated in an unlawful demonstration, that you're very sorry, it won't happen again, and you throw yourself on the government's mercy. You'd be out in time for breakfast. Or you can go back to the pen until we get around to picking out your cellmate. I hear Big Gordo's been damn lonely these past few."

"And if it does happen again?”

"Oh, you wouldn't want that to happen, fine lady like you," the cop said with a low chuckle. "Not at all. So am I clear? I have plenty more people to talk to."

She allowed herself a moment of thought. Politics had never come strongly to her--she hadn't even voted in the independence referendum, for all the good it'd have done--but politics was like a cockroach infestation. No matter how many traps she put out, no matter how many she squashed, there would always be more to find their way into her life. She'd have been at the camp no matter what had happened, if not a patroller than just another member of the disrupted generation, frozen out of the world.

A world that wasn't looking for superheroes. A world where the superheroes had lost.

"Clear," she said. He gave her a pen and a statement that she read quickly and signed.

"Good on you," the cop said. "Now get out of here."

They photographed her and took her biometrics, and then it was over like a dissolving nightmare. There was nothing special or familiar outside, just a grey industrial wasteland a million kilometers from nowhere and colder than it had been inside, now that there was nothing to stop the wind. Her wrists, remembering how the zip tie had gnawed into them, chose that moment to burn.

It was night once she made it back to the bridge, the sun long since vanished beneath the mountains. The city glittered like a constellation, a flock of shining birds frozen in flight, but there was nothing left for her there except pain, misery, powerlessness. The true constellations were barely visible in the washed-out sky, and even Polaris was a guttering candle she wouldn't have recognized if she hadn't sought it out. There were no stars for her up there. If she couldn't be a superhero, what good was she?

She leaned against the guardrail in the dim hope that someone would arrive and not pass through. That was all she had left, she realized with a weak smile--dim hope. The chance that maybe the most unlikely thing would happen, that the coin would land on its edge. In all the time she watched, looking past the rail to the cold inlet below the dark blots in the sky that were the mountains, the only thing that landed was a lonely crow.

"Messenger from the King, no doubt," she said. The crow jumped around on the guardrail, just as she'd expect a crow to do. "You can tell him it was a good shot, but that he was right. This is no place for the proud. Think you can pass that along?"

The crow awked and cawed and hopped down to the platform, digging around for any morsels that a pedestrian or a cyclist might have left behind. They were smart for birds, smarter than people gave them credit for, smart enough to learn how to survive on the edges of a world that wasn't made for them. A world they had no hope of understanding, let alone controlling.

"How do you do it?” There she was, having a conversation with a bird rooting around for garbage to eat. "What kind of life is that?"

"Caw," the crow said. The only life it'd ever known, just as she'd only been able to experience a world where people mattered more than software on screens and between covers--only the crow didn't know what it was missing, and when it didn't like what it was seeing, it only had to flap its wings and fly away.

It would be easy enough for Alpha Borealis to fly away, even if there was only one place her wings could take her. Nice and easy.

"Awk-awk," the crow said, followed by a metallic clink. She looked down to see a glinting object where there'd been nothing before. One of those new Alaska quarters, the one stamped with a polar bear, the Big Dipper, and the North Star, just as it was in the sky. Always there, always shining, always pointing people true.

Alpha Borealis closed her fist around the coin. The crow danced around for a moment, then was gone in a flurry of feathers. Black as night, the world swallowed it in a moment.

“So there I was,” she said. “Bird like you would get it, I think...”

Her blues-and-whites were bright, brighter than any machine could be. Alpha Borealis could be seen from a long way away.

This story originally appeared in No Shit, There I Was, published by Alliteration Ink.


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Author: Phoebe Barton

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