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So here I am again, sitting at a twelve-person steel table, going through the motions. The Society of Supercriminals' new headquarters is impressive but not comfortable. You'd think that Overlord, with his ill-gotten dictator-industrialist billions, could afford some padding for these damn chairs. But as my Tío Cesar would say, assholes never shit flowers.

We've been at the table a long time, Overlord assigning minor miscreantish jobs to the Society's members. He's clearly building to some criminal crescendo, and I wish he'd just get to it. I squirm audibly in my seat and I can practically hear him frown behind that grotesque silver mask. There's a longstanding if covert debate among my associates as to whether the big O wears the mask because he's horribly scarred or whether he just has a kink for such things. Either way, over the course of a meeting, dude's heavy breathing goes from annoying to gut-deep creepy.

My attention is drifting. I force myself to focus on our self-appointed leader's metal-echoed words.

". . . on other fronts, there is a new so-called hero that has been disrupting the profitable activities of one of the larger illicit organizations that pay us tribute. Doctor Diablo, this assignment will fall to you. The foolish do-gooder calls himself Steelfist. His powers include a great proficiency with all forms of martial arts and—"

"Let me guess—he's white, right?" I interrupt, tired of the rambling. Overlord always goes on like this when all he really has to do is slap down a dossier with This guy needs his ass handed to him stamped on the cover. I'm just cutting to the chase.

Behind that mask, bloodshot eyes register confusion, then irritation with my question. Around me, I hear mumbles and shifting chairs. The Society of Supercriminals hates it when I bring up race.

"How could the ethnicity of this self-righteous fool possibly matter to—"

"I'm just sayin'," I interrupt, gauging carefully how far I can push my smart-aleckry. Overlord has a tendency to vaporize guys who disagree with him in meetings. "I'm just sayin' you don't need to go through all of this. I can guess his goddamn origin: Disaffected rich kid. Fled America and trained with mystical Eastern warriors. Soon became the best—one year at ninja camp is always enough time for a gringo to get better than any native. He defeated the jealous Eastern ex-best warrior. Screwed the prettiest Eastern girl. Earned the respect of her dad, some old guy with a white mustache who's been waiting all his life for a white boy to come to his school. Came home and decided to fight crime. Am I right?"

For the first time in a half-dozen of these meetings, Overlord looks at me with something like real respect. "Impressive intelligence gathering, Diablo. Your sources are—"

"It was a guess. Anyway, yeah, he sounds about my speed. I'll handle him." Taking out a new, minor-league hero. Chump work. But it could be worse—Overlord doled out a goddamn bank robbery to Jaguara. An insult to homegirl's skills, but better her than me.

"Very well," says the madman in the silver mask. "Our last task falls to Planhatcher."

Planhatcher, the World's Greatest Schemer, stands up. His costume always struck me as preposterous—the monocle, the image on his chest that looks like Rube Goldberg got drunk and drew on his shirt.

Still, he's one of the few folks in the Society that I can stand. One of the few that ever talks about anything other than taking over the world or putting this or that nemesis in a death trap. Early on, I tried to make buddies with Black Thunder, on the brown-black solidarity tip. Going through the motions. But dude's too obsessed with his archenemy Weatherlord, who's been beating his ass since the '70s. Now, I know living under the white man's thumb can fuck with your head, but the shit got depressing. Cheering on a pathetically pumped Black Thunder when he aced Weatherlord's little green-skinned sidekick. Like I say, depressing.

Planhatcher strokes his goatee and says, "My task is to free the inmates of Centropolis Prison."

Beside me a blue-skinned fist the size of a Thanksgiving turkey pounds the steel table enthusiastically, leaving a dent. "MASHER LOVE JAILBREAKS!" booms the biggest Supercriminal present.

Planhatcher sniffs, his disdain evident to everyone except Masher, which is probably for the best. "I am speaking of more than a jailbreak, my friends. This is something much more . . . thorough."

Mister Munitions, who was half-asleep a second ago, suddenly lights up at this. "We're gonna blow up Centropolis Prison!"

The look of disappointment on Planhatcher's face is profound. "This is not about destroying the physical prison, either. My plan is to destroy the need for the prison. Now, most of those imprisoned in Centropolis are nonviolent drug offenders—useless to us as henchmen, but what if . . ."

Planhatcher spins his word-web. His scheme involves super-powered inmates, corrupt officials and a shadily acquired prison construction company.

The details are sort of lost on me, especially when he starts jotting down some sort of equation on a napkin. Despite calling myself Doctor Diablo, I only have a bachelor's degree. It's more than most kids from the barrio manage, but it wasn't enough to keep me out of trouble. Anyway, the man with the monocle goes on about stealing Moodshifter's emotion ray, then there's something about a remote-controlled clone of the governor.

The guy's nuts, straight up and down. But then, I go to work in a flame-painted bodysuit.

And, as the implications of Planhatcher's scheme become clear to me, I have to admit that he might be nuts, but he's also a genius. Prisoners painlessly reformed and reintegrated into society. Their former victims granted a sense of deep healing that the courts could never provide. The best part is, the results will inevitably draw attention and encourage similar efforts elsewhere.

My God. This is the seed of something truly amazing, and for once I'm happy to have shown up for a Society meeting. My cousin Carlos—a good kid who's caught a whole lot of shitty breaks—is in Centropolis Prison. Rotting away and reduced to an animal's existence for making essentially the same stupid decisions every frat boy on campus made back in college. This plan would give him another—better to say a first—chance at life.

I can't help gushing. "Planhatcher! This is fucking brilliant!"

Overlord, on the other hand is clearly impatient and irritated. "An intriguingly baroque scheme, Planhatcher. Still, this and the other tasks I have assigned you are merely distractions. For now we come to my own part." Those bloodshot eyes are smiling. "While the Legion of Justice is dealing with the baffling distractions the rest of you provide, I will be using my skill with robotics to reprogram the Legion's most faithful servant. Those crusading buffoons think he is at ARMOR headquarters for his annual maintenance, but behold!"

Overlord gestures with a mailed hand at the wall behind him. The wall slides up to reveal a man-shaped robot writhing in manacles and berating us Supercriminals in a posh English accent.

Arthur the android butler. The idiot kidnapped Arthur! For an evil genius, Overlord is a moron. As the rest of the Society cackles in a great forethoughtless gloat, Planhatcher and I exchange worried looks. Inevitably Captain Patriot or Ultiman or whoever's in charge of the Legion of Justice this year is going to stage a rescue. Which means we won't get time to implement Planhatcher's "distraction." A thousand hapless cholos like my cousin, whom we could have helped, will get chewed up even further by the system.

As if on cue, a thunderous rumbling shakes the building. Then another. The sound of our impenetrable fortress wall being broken open. The Legion is here.

"Impossible!" shouts Overlord. What a jackass.

A voice like a lightning strike echoes from a nearby room. "Think ye to hide, cowering villains!? Verily, my axe doth rend these walls as though steel were mere paper!! Fear not, friend Arthur, for the Legion of Justice hath come to free thee!!"

A knot forms in my stomach. I turn to Planhatcher. "They brought The Berserker with them? I thought he was trapped in the Middle Ages!"

Planhatcher shrugs and rolls up the tube of blueprint paper he had spread on the table. I sigh and think of Carlos. Chances are pretty good I'll be joining him soon.

The Legion wants a fight. So I charge up my infernal internal dynamo, watching the orange glow begin to shimmer off of my arms. Every time I do it I think about falling into that volcano and waking up . . . changed. It's a hell of a thing, being a changed man in the same old world.

Planhatcher pulls something small and gun-shaped from his belt and turns a dial on it. I see the prison rehab plan die in his eyes. Beside me, Masher picks up the great steel meeting table like a club.

We didn't make this world, but we survive it by going through the motions.

Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. His novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. His poetry and short fiction have been widely anthologized, and his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Salon. He is currently writing Black Bolt for Marvel Comics.
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4 Dec 2023

“Ask me something only I would know.” You say this to your wife because you know you’re human. You can feel it in the familiar ache in your back, and the fear writhing in your guts. You feel it in the cold seeping into your bare feet from the kitchen floor. You know you’re real because you remember.
now, there is the shape...humanoid, but not / necessarily human
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