Who Killed The Invincible Man?

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PROLOGUE

Synthetic polyurethane and carbon fiber mesh might be formfitting, temperature-regulating and flame resistant, but it never did the body any favors. A questionable fashion choice at best. There's a certain sag one needs to be mindful of, a regiment that must be followed if one it to take up the traditionally skintight mantle of the superheroic. Slouching is to be avoided at all costs. And there's no slouch like death.

Black was a good choice. Not the most creative as costumes go, but certainly slenderizing and properly optimized for stealth. Hides the blood, too. Usually other people's.

The body was discovered at 10:48 PM. An old woman called it in, clutching her housedress against the night and tugging along a brittle, quivering creature that might have passed for a dog in better days. Imagine the look on her face when it hit the pavement, mere feet from where Precious was squatting in the bushes. If I had taken the time to notice, I think I might have laughed.

Official identification wouldn't come for hours yet, but anyone who watched the news surely recognized the outfit. Normal people don't go out for a night on the town high-tech tactical gear. The emblem emblazoned across the chest helped as well. It's all about branding, differentiating the product in a market saturated with noble do-gooders and avenging shadows. Who knew it would also be a handy tool for sorting out their remains?

The first responders did their due diligence. The EMT that squatted beside the body even took a reverent moment before peeling off the mask. I wonder what she expected. After a fall that long, secret identities become a moot point. Still, she might have spared the crowd the grisly sight.

I'd like to say that it didn't affect me, that I watched the proceedings from a comfortable distance, detached and at peace with my new predicament. That's how it goes in the stories. But they never mention the gross indignity of it, the shift that comes over those around you when they realize there's nothing left but meat. Nor do they cover how to get bits of brain out of a custom molded facial prosthetic, but I suppose that'll be someone else's job now. That is, if I even rate the museum circuit.

So am I at peace? No. But I never signed up for peace.

A boy at the front of the crowd gags and buries his face against his mother's leg. Sometimes I forget that people don't know, that there are still some who believe in the stories, the symbols, all the lies that we agree to tell each other, each and every one of us complicit in the willful ignorance that is human existence. As losses of innocence go, though, it's a memorable one. I wonder if he'll tell his friends that he was there, that he saw The Invincible Man splattered on the blacktop like a sack of pig guts.

Invincible. Invulnerable. Untouchable. I proved it true in all the wrong ways. Never the right ones. Never when it mattered. Why should tonight be any different?

The mother is pulling the boy away. The old woman has gathered up her dog and his heading back inside the building. There's nothing more to see here, nothing more for me except a vague curiosity about what sort of tool they'll use to scrape me off the pavement.

My name is Nathaniel Nix. I'm bulletproof, fireproof, and certainly concrete proof. Honestly, I've taken much harder hits than this. I've been studied by much smarter people, tested and tried, pushed beyond the limits of human expectation. I've been shot, stabbed, blown up, buried, subjected to all manner of nastiness in the name of valiant heroing.

I'm kind of a big deal. I'm also kind of dead.


CHAPTER 1

We always want what we can't have. It's trite, but it's true. Most clichés are. Imagine that you wake up one morning and discover that you can't be hurt. Better yet, you can't feel pain. What's the first thing you would do?

For me, it was marching down the stairs of my building and banging on the door of the basement apartment. The girl who lived there liked to smile at me when her boyfriend wasn't around, a brutish fellow who was always ready with a sneer if I stared too long. This was before I'd had any sort of training, but when he opened the door I hit him as hard as I could. As expected, he hit harder. But still I felt nothing, took it like a champ. Unfortunately, girls don't like it when you punch their boyfriends. There weren't many smiles after that.

Back upstairs, I tried everything I could think of. I'd broken three razors trying to rid myself of what had become a permanent five o'clock shadow. That had been the first hint. And if even the great beast of the basement couldn't hurt me, what could? That morning I proceeded to ruin every knife I own, put a sizeable crack in my brick accent wall and - in a fit of cartoonish madness - dent my only frying pan. Not a scratch, not a bruise, not a headache. My skin had become tough as steel, my scalp stubbornly resisting my attempts to tear my hair out by the fistful. Yet the man I saw in the mirror looked unchanged.

If I had known I'd be stuck this way forever, I probably would have gotten a haircut.

I wasn't part of the initial outbreak. That had come months earlier. Well, not "outbreak." The Supers - a club to which I now unwittingly belonged - prefer to call it the "awakening." Official blame rested with Apophis, an asteroid that passed in near-Earth orbit trailing unknown kinds of deep-space radiation, just before the first reports of extra-human abilities started coming in. It was a near miss, at least as far as astronomical measurements go. A tad to the right and things would have been decidedly different. Though I suppose it all worked out the same for me in the end.

Instead of being wiped out, mankind had been forever changed. Some of us, anyway. A few dozen have come forward, with late bloomers like me popping up from time to time. I assume there's at least that many more keeping quiet about it. In retrospect, it probably would have been the smarter choice. Not nearly as fun, though. Definitely not as profitable.

After spending the better part of a day attempting to off myself, I did what any logical superhuman would: I hired an agent. The hero for hire game was already proving itself a serious growth industry and there was no shortage of promoters and talent managers lining up to ride the coattails of The Human Punching Bag. I’d hoped the name they eventually came up with would have been more of an improvement, but there you go.

From this brew of magical space rays, neighborly assault and commission negotiations, The Invincible Man was born. Getting work was easy. You'd think a superhero would need a supervillain, a proper nemesis, but only a few have been so lucky. For the rest of us there were the security firms, think tanks, biotech companies - suddenly anyone and everyone wanted a superhuman on the payroll. Some had motives that were more exploitive than others, but all of them wanted the clout and most of them could pay. As with most things, though, the government could pay more.

Mine was a defensive power. I'd need training, something to get me off the sidelines and make me a player. So my advisors advised and showed me where to sign. At the time, the idea of being a "defense contractor" amused me. Maybe if I'd paid more attention to the details, things would have turned out differently. But if you don't make the choices, you can't take the blame, right? I was only following orders.

 

*****

 

So what am I doing here? Don't I have anything better to do than hang around narrating my own afterlife? No, actually. I can't say I'm particularly surprised. I've never been a religious man. It was all just stories, fictions, not even particularly creative as far as such things go. If I'm going to imagine a world beyond this one, I'd prefer something with a few more women and a lot less hellfire. Hell, in my personal experience I've seen more evidence of comic books being gospel than actual gospel.

I'm not going to deny that it's a convenient perspective. If all those Sunday morning supplicants were right, I'd be burning for all eternity. Maybe that's all it takes. Maybe it really is belief that drives everything. I believe nothing, therefore I experience nothing. We get what we put in.

If that's the case, this all makes sense. There is no heaven, no hell, no moving on. Alive or dead, there's only me. And a lifetime of grief to keep me company. No difference at all, really.