i. Ironside

The room was one-way glass on four sides, two facing the Hollywood studio’s bustling office and the other two facing the hazy, morning urban sprawl of Los Angeles. In this mirrored box, high above the City of Angels, three laughably diverse celebrities sought to change the world.

“Alright, let’s get started,” Christina Ng said. She was often described behind her back as the Corporate China Doll, a petite, seemingly ageless CEO of one of the world’s most successful companies. Christina barely capped five feet tall even in her heels, yet she was clearly the leader here.

“We’ve got video of their auditions if we need it, plus interview transcripts from our conversations with them, photos, and bios in those packets in front of you all. Our goal today is to cut our group in half, from sixteen candidates down to eight. It’s going to be a long day, and we’ll take breaks as we need them. First up is John Bliss from upstate New York, whose Guardian name is Ironside.”

“He’s too fucking nice,” Hudson barked. “This is an extermination service, not a nursery. I need killers.” Nearly seven feet tall, Hudson was built like a comic-book version of a pro-wrestling action figure. An ergonomic office chair strained under his muscular bulk. His simple tank-top displayed not only his physique but his oily jet-black skin, patterned with yellow like a salamander. Hudson was the first videotaped Guardian, and thus one of the most famous and iconic figures in the world, a true American hero. He was also an asshole, and Christina immediately found herself annoyed.

Christina sighed. “You weren’t a killer when you transformed. You were an electrician. Guardians are rarely killers when they change.”

“Alright, fair,” Hudson said reluctantly. “But I wasn’t no choir boy even before I transformed. This guy is.”

“Fair,” Christina nodded. If they were going to spend the entire day debating candidates, it wouldn’t do to fight with Hudson in the first minutes. “Remember that this is a brand play for AlphaTech as much as it is an extermination service, as you put it. You need people who can fight. I need people I can market.”

“He’s definitely marketable,” Andromeda Stacey, twice People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person in the World, purred.

Andromeda looked fake she was so perfect, even here where all the cameras were off. Her Disney-large eyes, pouting lips, and long neck were as unbelievable in person as the lithe, toned curves beneath her halter top. Blonde hair piled on the supermodel’s head except for a couple of artfully curling wisps brushing each high cheekbone. Whereas Christina sat perfectly erect, Andromeda draped across her chair like a swathe of silk. Christina was a heterosexual woman well into her forties and even she found Andromeda distracting.

“He’s like a 1950’s poster,” the model continued. “Beefy, blonde, handsome, and wholesome. And the kids will think his powers are cool.”

 

* * * * *

 

“Alright, John,” the skinny cameraman said, “We’re ready when you are. We’re rolling.”

John Bliss nodded and took a deep breath. The southern California sun beat down mercilessly.

John grew up in White Harbor, a manufacturing town in upstate New York, and except for four years in the Army he hadn’t traveled much elsewhere. When John had auditioned for Alpha Squad, the world’s first privately-funded team of Guardians, with its big Hollywood studio crew and high-tech corporate backing, he’d assumed everything would be slick. Like a sci-fi show.

So far, it felt sort of the same as New York.

He’d flown coach to Los Angeles. The hotel right near the beach was pretty nice, he guessed, but the room was awfully small. And here he was, miles and miles from Hollywood in some no-name California town, in a big, sprawling junkyard for his first and maybe only audition. Nothing so far had matched his fantasies about Alpha Squad. John was not an entitled guy, but he found himself a bit disappointed by something he’d hyped up in his mind so much.

Still, best thing was to do his best, like his Mom would tell him. The instructions from the film crew were simple as day:

Destroy the truck.

It was a big truck, a Ford F150, sitting about fifty yards away. New.

Everything about the task seemed absurd. There were literally junk cars piled up around him that people had discarded, but here was a perfectly good truck that his Daddy would have loved to drive, and that was the thing John had to destroy. It wasn’t even moving, just sitting there unsuspecting and innocent. John didn’t see how beating up on a defenseless truck was going to tell the judges whether he could or couldn’t defeat a Demon. But instructions were instructions. The Army’s drills didn’t always make sense either. He’d do his best and make his parents proud.

John turned away from the truck and jogged the other way, about another thirty yards further from that doomed, new truck. It was as much distance as he could get in the junkyard with a clear path between him and his target. A pile of old appliances loomed a couple feet from his back like a scrapyard totem pole as he turned and faced the truck again.

He blew out another breath and rocked his neck back from side to side. This is why he came all the way across the country. Time to do his best.

Time to be a Guardian.

He started running. With a thought, wrought-iron metal plates appeared from seemingly nowhere to wrap around John’s body. The entire process took less than a one-Mississippi, and it looked and sounded a lot like something from a Transformers movie. Slabs of metal several inches thick slapped around him in a shifting mosaic, encasing him in armor as he ran. The metal was black, pitted and industrial, like pieces of an unpainted locomotive. Pistons ran along his arms and legs, connecting at running gears on his elbows and knees. A large blast pipe started at his waist and wrapped to jut from behind one shoulder, billowing steam as he moved.

When it was done, John Bliss had become considerably taller and wider, encased in full armor that appeared to be a cross between a medieval knight and an ancient train. His head was an iron cylinder with one Cyclopean eye that glowed white even in the bright sun, an iron, wedge-like grill in front.

CHUNK-CHUNK-CHUNK-CHUNK

His armored feet bit into the arid dirt and weeds as he ran, leaving churned craters behind. Faster and faster. Pistons worked. Steam puffed from the blast pipe and occasionally one of his joints. John, now fully the Guardian his town had dubbed “Ironside,” barreled forward.

His Daddy had clocked him at well over a hundred miles an hour when he got going, as long as he was moving in roughly a straight line. John figured he must have been close to that speed when he collided with two-and-a-half tons of Ford.

The sound was deafening, and for a moment all John could see was twisted metal everywhere. Blind and deaf, he instinctively threw both hands out wide, ripping the mighty vehicle in two and sending both halves spinning away.

As the violent noises of the collision died away, John looked around him with his one, shining eye. Debris from the Ford truck was everywhere… behind him, in front, and especially to each side. He hadn’t realized it, but he must have carried the truck dozens of feet before ripping it in two. That beautiful new truck was now unrecognizable junk for the junkyard.

“Is that it?” John asked. In his Ironside form, his voice was much louder, deeper, and echoed as if he were standing at the bottom of a well. “Am I done?”

The camera crew gaped at him from thirty feet away.

“That was awesome,” John heard one of them say.

 

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