In the age of endgames, saturated with superheroes yet still short on tangible hope, it seems a high time to examine one particular origin story. That's exactly what this timely and barbwire sharp speculation from Lia Swope Mitchell does—I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. -the ed
Give us a hero, the people said. So for everyone's sake, the genius tried.
His first idea was to create a small, ugly hero with high intelligence but dubious social skills, because who would expect that? Then he glanced in the mirror. From him? Everyone would expect that.
No, he'd give the people what they wanted. A real hero. Whatever that meant.
He gathered schematics for past heroes, but they varied so widely: big, small, young, old, stupid, smart. Male, female, both, other. Human and not. When he averaged all the stats he could find the resulting figure was, well, average.
The genius reflected. Perhaps a hero of average proportions could save them, in some thoroughly average way. A minor act of kindness, he thought, the story of which could spread widely and inspire others, who would in turn inspire others, creating an exponential increase of kindness spontaneously combusting through the world. Through this process the people would save themselves and each other, one at a time, and would come to see heroism as an everyday attainment possible for all, rather than abdicating personal responsibility in favor of blind devotion to a single superhuman figure. But this plan depended too much on the unknowing cooperation of others, asked too much work of people preconditioned to wait for salvation.
The genius gave up on his calculations; he was not totally unfamiliar with popular culture, after all. He knew what they really wanted: a hero who was all-powerful and larger than life. A hero who could fly, who could shatter meteors to dust with one punch, reduce tyrants to tears with a few bullet-hard words, and occasionally, with strong but gentle arms, rescue a trapped puppy from a well.
Fine, then. A stereotype. The genius retreated to his lab, and got to work.
He built the skeleton large out of steel and titanium, with broad flaring scapulae, shining triple-butted femurs and spine, a great globe of skull. He shaped a silicone heart the size of a massive, clenching and unclenching fist, to pump necessary lubricants out to the joints; then the other organs, which were less approximations of human organs as such—those were far too messy—than what was necessary to power the body. Air bladder and actuator to power the pneumatic silicone muscles, generator and connections for the electroactive polymers. The information systems he cushioned within the false muscles of the chest. And finally—after so many days and nights of internal work that he almost forgot the outside world, even forgot sometimes precisely what he was building, for whom and why—he covered the entire thing in skin, a multilayered polyurethane cloak woven with microwire sensors.
Once the skin was complete, he stopped to examine the body he'd made. It lay naked, unconscious—he hadn't installed intelligence yet—but breathing, in the sense that the pneumatics were functioning with an easy rhythm that resembled breath. A huge being, big and heavy enough to crush any human enemy, and without any sense of pain. Its face he left smooth, with easily forgotten features, a blank where those looking could project whatever emotions and memories they needed to see. A hero had to be all things to all people, or, failing that, as many things to as many people as possible.
He felt only a vague pride in his creation. The idea wasn't his, after all.
Designing the intelligence was a delicate matter, and took time. He searched the databases of all known uploaded minds, looking for heroic traits, their preconditions and precursors. People didn't just happen to be resilient or kind, they learned those traits through experience, so the hero would need experiential foundations as well. A back story, the genius’s old andro-IT professor had called it, is what makes a robot into a person. The hero needed resilience and kindness, yes, but also enough cynicism to identify deception, the focus to accomplish long and difficult tasks, the creativity to find new solutions to old problems—and, ironically, the coldness to obliterate his enemies without regret. He would need a singular sort of childhood narrative to furnish these things.
The genius installed all the appropriate memories and attributes, curious to see how the narrative program would fuse them into a single seamless personality. Then he sat back, cracked a beer, and waited for his hero to boot.
The progress bar grew infinitesimally. He fell asleep at his desk and dreamed that he was swimming in an ocean of snakes, trying to slither so smoothly that they would not notice him and bite.
When he woke, he saw his hero standing over him, endless questions brimming in those fine, blue, acrylic eyes. They were innocent yet wise, receiving and processing new data from the light.
The genius sat up, feeling his vertebrae crack and realign. “Good morning,” he said.
The hero blinked. Tears lubricated his eyes as a freshly installed memory bloomed in his mind.
Then he answered: "Father, you’re so old."
It was true, the genius realized. He had worked a long time. "Look outside," he commanded the hero. "Save them. Save them all."
The hero looked around the cluttered lab and, behind the plastic curtains and shelves of devices, found a window. He rubbed a clear circle in the dust with his fist. He shook his head, confused by what he saw.
The genius stood, wincing at the pop in his knees, and looked, too.
Outside the mists drizzled down. A dead skyscraper rotted on its side. Under the rubble and ash, the earth steamed. There were no people. They were gone, every one. There was nobody left but the hero and the genius, staring at their reflections. One small, ugly, and old; the other enormous, handsome and new. And neither of them had anything left to save.