When Barry Burke received a call on his cell phone in his Amherst apartment, the last thing he expected to hear was a woman's cold, clipped tones on the other end calling him by name. Not Barry, no, the woman on the other end called him Zzzap. His superhero name; the name only one other person knew that Barry could claim. As a black, wheelchair-bound scientist, he wasn't anyone's top choice for the superhero that flew around the country at Mach 5 as a blinding wraith made of pure energy. Barry might garner a second look or two because of his race and disability; no one could look at Zzzap for more than a second or two. Looking at his alter-ego was like looking at the heart of a star through a man-shaped cutout in space.
There was no way to connect Barry to Zzzap and yet this woman had. She knew he was home, had his cell number, and asked him to meet with her on the roof of the Capitol Records building. In Los Angeles. She said there was some kind of contagion in the city and she needed his speed. She'd added his immunity to all disease almost as an afterthought. She knew so much about him and over the course of the conversation, all he managed to get was her name: Stealth.
He was in LA half an hour later, as much concerned by the idea of a contagion in one of the most populous cities in America as he was by how Stealth had discovered him. ( Stealth was inclined to discuss exactly one of those topics. )
Moving low to the ground through a strange city, the best speed Zzzap could manage was around 400 miles per hour. Much more than that caused serious weather problems, not to mention sonic booms (which could shatter windows, windshields, neon signs, and lots of other expensive things). He started circling the buildings, checking every person he passed for the signs of infection. Anywhere people could be. Alleys. Roads. Parking structures. Subways. Zzzap peered in windows where he could, through walls where he couldn't. On his first pass, he'd have said he saw three-fifths of the city's population. No sign of the mystery disease, although he did stop two muggings and halted a high speed street race by melting the tires of both cars. He figured he could make at least one more pass before it was time to meet up with Stealth again, and hopefully he could catch a good chunk of the remaining population.
Street. Boulevard. Avenue. Drive. He was an hour into his second run when Zzzap saw him.
He was an old guy. His clothes were dark and a bit ragged. Probably homeless, staggering down an alley. His skin was the color of ash and his face was blank. Not emotionless, it just looked like he'd forgotten how to make any sort of expression. A quick check at either end of the street told Zzzap they were just north of Beverly between La Brea and Detroit.
Zipping back to hover over him, a full minute passed before he twisted his head up to look at the glowing wraith above his head. It usually didn't take people long to notice the white-hot man-shape sizzling like a sparkler. His eyes were cloudy--Zzzap wondered if perhaps the old man might be blind. He was staring right at the hero and not blinking. Something looked very wrong about him, and Zzzap couldn't figure out what.Good evening, citizen,
he said, careful to enunciate each word. Are you okay?
Still wide-eyed. Still no blink. Had he blinked once yet?Sir? Are you feeling okay? Do you need any help?
The man's mouth opened, showing off an impressive collection of half-rotted teeth, and then he clacked them together again and again and again. To Zzzap, it sounded like those little wooden things Mexican dancers wear on their hands.
A fun little trick the magazines and television shows never figured out: Zzzap could see all the electromagnetic energy in the air, including radio waves, television broadcasts, and satellite transmissions. He knew there were seventeen GPS devices within three blocks of where he was floating, and he could list off the codes for each one. And if he had to, with a little concentration, he could have duplicated them or overridden them with a thought. Which was why it had been second nature to see the cell phone built into Stealth’s cowl and memorize the number. He focused on that and could feel the signal a phone would translate into an audible ring.( This was all fine. )[Adapted and tweaked from "Power to the People," Chapter 7 in Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines. NFI, NFB, OOC is enjoyed]