The Hero Paradigm (full text)

Superhero science fiction, 1,400 words, a prologue of sorts wherein two estranged, super-powered brothers meet to set an entire superhero saga into motion.

The man who called himself The Hammer stepped onto the basketball court in the old neighborhood with something approaching reverence. The world was at stake. This would be an ending, but it could also be an origin. His younger brother Evan was already there. Two hoops stood in opposition on a blacktop rectangle, surrounded by just enough grass and a couple of stunted trees to call it a park. In simpler times, being on different sides didn’t make you enemies. Except when it did.

The Hammer asked his brother to meet here because Evan was sentimental, and might put aside their beef to hear him out. If it went right, it would be a new beginning for them, and where better to begin than at their beginning? Maybe The Hammer was sentimental too. When they were growing up, this wasn’t a place to hang at 3 AM. Times changed. So had they, along with a tenth of the world’s population. Empowerment was a rush, but it brought new threats.

“Marshall,” Evan said.

“Evan,” said The Hammer.

They bumped fists and began circling. For a moment, The Hammer wished he’d brought a ball. They were here to talk, but they never just talked. Sports, video games, sparring. They needed to keep their hands occupied. No, The Hammer decided, basketball wouldn’t do for tonight. Sparring was the best way to set the tone. The Hammer could imagine a scenario where he and his brother started and finished on the same side, facing what would come. But Galaxy Brain thought it unlikely, and she was always right. The Hero Paradigm was the way forward. “Fearless symmetry.”

The Hammer smiled behind the Hero mask he’d worn, in part to annoy Evan, in part because The Hammer still believed. Sparring with his brother brought back good memories. And now, with both of them Empowered by X-Rads in the same way, The Hammer could only cut loose with his brother. Evan could shrug off a hit from a speeding truck. The Hammer could punch like one. Against Evan, overwhelming force wouldn’t work. Winning needed skill, cunning, and a clear view of the future. It helped that only The Hammer knew the game.

The Hammer feinted with a punch that could puncture concrete, but then he swept his leg between his brother’s ankles. Evan skipped like a double dutch jumper and landed a two-fisted blow that would have caved anyone else’s skull. Still, Evan was holding back.

“Nice footwork, baby brother,” The Hammer said.

“You didn’t ask me here to dance, Marshall.”

Yes and no. “Galaxy Brain has a theory.”

Evan’s punch went wide. “You mean Jenna?”

Evan hated the codenames. The Hammer knew the Hero Paradigm, compiled from comic books and movies about how superhumans functioned in society, annoyed Evan. Codenames, costumes, masks, secret identities, even training to fight. That last one surprised The Hammer. They’d been sparring and training since they were kids. President Carey had gotten into Evan’s head.

“Galaxy Brain chose her nom de guerre,” said The Hammer. “It’s what she does–synthesizes a galaxy of information into a coherent theory. You should respect her choice.”

Evan threw some fast jabs at The Hammer’s ribs that could’ve dented steel. “I ain’t calling you ‘Hammer,’ Marshall.”

The Hammer grunted. Not yet. Maybe Evan wasn’t pulling his punches. A reminder to avoid a hit you don’t need to take. “She connected the dots: the alien signal, the comet, the spores. Something big is coming. Earth has to be ready to meet the threat.”

Punch, block, close the circle.

“You mean a superhero team? After all the tragedy and grief, getting away from Empowered vigilantes? Nah, bro. President Carey’s way is the right way.”

G-B called it, of course. Carey had gotten to Evan. “Peace is a beautiful dream, baby brother. It’s time to wake up. Carey is wrong. The Hero Paradigm is right. ‘The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.’ We don’t need an Empowered Peace Corps. We need an Empowered Marine Corps.”

“Jenna says that? Or is that you?”

Punch, block, kick, block. They knew each other’s moves too well.

“Empowerment wasn’t an accident. Galaxy Brain could explain better, but the alien spores that make our bodies catch X-Spectrum Radiation? They made this planet one big XSR buffet. Whatever spread the spores from that comet is coming back–to eat. The Empowered are on the menu. That’s one tenth of the planet. That’s you and me.”

They could’ve been on the same side if not for Carey and his hopeful idealism that had gripped the world. No. That wasn’t true. They’d drifted long before Carey. Because he’d sheltered Evan from the worst of the world and left him unprepared. The Hammer could still correct that.

Evan dropped his fists and sighed. He thought G-B’s predictions were conspiracy theories. Under President Carey, the world had moved on from them. That didn’t mean there weren’t real conspiracies.

“Go public,” Evan said. “Let Jenna make her case. You’ll find recruits.”

“But not you, baby brother?” All those speeches from Carey, hovering over Congress, applause from both sides of the aisle. ‘The power to destroy means the responsibility to build.’ Under Carey’s way, superheroes weren’t warriors, they were community servants. It undermined the whole Paradigm.

The Hammer leaned against the hoop pole at the far end of the court. “I think Carey’s Empowerment is more than floating and giving speeches. He’s a Persuader.”

“Then he’s the guy you’ve gotta persuade. But Marshall. When in history was the world truly at peace? Even violent crime is way down. Eight hundred million people in the world are walking WMDs, but things are good. Carey got that rolling. Don’t take us back.”

“Carey’s trying to lull us. He wants us soft.” The pole was embedded in concrete. No problem.

Evan slapped his forehead and turned his back. “Is that Jenna’s theory? Or yours? You could always find the bad in every good thing.”

“Damnit, you can smell a trap. We’ve got to get it together!”

The Hammer ripped the pole from the concrete and took a swing.

“What do you want from–hey! What the hell? You trying to kill me?”

“Doubt I could,” The Hammer said. “But the way you dodged? That’s good. We have to assume that whatever’s coming can hurt us. We can’t get soft. We gotta whip the Empowered into fighters. That means the Hero Paradigm.”

It was time to roll the dice. Galaxy Brain knew what was necessary. The Hammer knew his brother. “We have to take out Carey.”

Evan stood shock-still. His fingers flexed, then balled into fists. He strode toward The Hammer, his glare pinning his older brother to the blacktop. For the first time in a long time, The Hammer felt ice in the pit of his gut. Evan tore the pole from The Hammer’s grasp, bent it double, and tossed it aside. He seized his brother’s shoulders.

“No. Not another word. This ain’t you.”

“The stakes don’t get any higher, baby brother.”

“I’ll stop you.”

The Hammer grinned behind his mask. “You and what army?” 

Baby brother, you’re almost there. Evan was a natural leader, and he could rally people–fighters–to his cause. Even against his own brother. It was part of the Hero Paradigm: every hero has an equal but opposite villain. To save the world, to teach his brother, The Hammer was willing to be what was needed. Fearless symmetry.

“Go home, Marshall. Get Jenna to use that galaxy brain to come up with a plan that doesn’t involve murder. Or I will come after you.”

“Have it your way, baby brother.” 

Evan walked away. He didn’t want to press his threat. The Hammer wouldn’t give him the choice. It was the last time Evan would turn his back on him.

“Come at me,” The Hammer whispered into the night.

It was an origin, but it was also an ending.

Galaxy Brain was never wrong. To stop what was coming, they needed to forge the Empowered into weapons. Marshall was The Hammer. Now Evan, whether he wanted to or not, would become The Anvil. Between them, they’d pit their Empowered against each other, molding the most formidable fighting force in the world. When the time came and the world hung in the balance, they’d finally team up against the common threat with a seasoned army at their backs. This too was the Hero Paradigm. Allies to enemies, enemies to allies. The Earth would be ready. 

Maybe then his brother would forgive him.

Author’s Notes

I wrote this story for the Codex Writers’ Weekend Warrior 2023 contest (see my recap of the 2022 contest for what it all means). The prompt was “What’s your superhero name?” And just like “After We Won and Before It Went to Hell” the year before, it was my favorite to write, but my lowest scoring story to readers. The reasons are likely the same for both: these are stories where I roll around in fandom tropes like a dog in stink, and write scenes before, after, or off to the side of what ought to be the main story. I’m endlessly fascinated by those para-stories: the prologues, epilogues, and interludes. In my mind, I already know the shape of a Star Wars or superhero comic arc. I’m basically writing the fan fiction peripherals to stories that don’t exist, but are kind of implied by the referenced tropes.

That’s also why I didn’t make too much of an effort to sell this story. Some things you just write because you want to try it out. I have a notion that this could be a chapter in a superhero novel, something at the end of the second act that reveals that the big rivalry between The Hammer and The Anvil was part of a long plan, and in the third act, we’ll see which brother, if any, was right. If I have an interesting and unexpected-yet-inevitable answer to that question, I may write that novel. I’ve written material for that hypothetical novel as part of a past NaNoWriMo. If it’s a project worth completing, I’ll complete it.

The meta- conceit of this story is that superhumans appeared suddenly in the real world, and many of them took the tropes and norms outlined in superhero comics and movies as a sort of code of conduct called The Hero Paradigm. But President Carey is a superhuman persuader who blows up those old tropes, and sets new rules of superhuman conduct where it’s not about costumes, crime, and super-battles, but a more mundane style of public service. J. Michael Straczynski’s brilliant, 24-issue comic series Rising Stars was definitely on my mind. Two opposing views of what a superhero story could or should be.

Into this ideological conflict, I throw another trope: Galactus is coming to eat the world. (Or is he?) Do you react with fear, or curiosity? Do you fight or innovate? Do you need an Empowered Peace Corps or an Empowered Marine Corps? That would be fodder for the hypothetical novel.

But this story, while it implied that bigger conflict, was my riff on the X-Men’s Xavier and Magneto. A pair of brothers who saw the world differently, and both wanted to save it. Two men whose alliance could have been extraordinary, but who ended up wasting it fighting among themselves. The kind of story I love in the comics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s