Greetings, information pills children of the information age! The time has come for another installment of…
…in which I use the character creation rules in the Marvel Super Heroes RPG’s Ultimate Powers Book to roll up a random batch of powers and abilities, health system then sit back and watch as some incredibly talented folks work their creative magic upon the quantified chaos.
This week’s work of wonder comes courtesy of the dynamic dad-and-daughter duo, Jack Feerick and Claire Feerick.
You think there is only one world, and you think you know your place in it.
You think your name is Judy Hatch, and that you’re a normal middle-school girl — quiet, a bit big for your age, not particularly athletic. You live with your family in a boring suburb. You like to read about science, you take piano lessons, you bicker with your brother. You’re smart; you suspect you may be a genius. You notice things that others don’t, and occasionally it gets you into trouble. But mostly you do not think of yourself as anything but ordinary.
Occasionally you daydream — as children do — that your parents are not your parents, and that you have a destiny Somewhere Else. Not that you are a princess, or anything (don’t be stupid, that stuff is for babies), but that you are in some way extraordinary, and that one day your real parents will take you away from the drab sameness of your little town and off to a new world of magic and danger and excitement, where you will be understood and appreciated, and where you will never, ever be bored.
You know that this is only a daydream, though. Until the day that it isn’t.
It’s summer — just before your eleventh birthday — and you’re camping with your family at the dumb state park, like always. It’s not like you’ve been fighting with them, really; but the weather is lousy and you’ve been cooped up in the tent with your brother, who is annoying as only a 14-year old boy can be. And it’s not like you’re running away when you leave camp and hide in one of the caves that dot the hillside just off the trail. You just want some time to yourself. And to let your family realize how much they’d miss you, if you were gone.
But of course your parents freak. You’re barely settled before they’re running around, calling your name, like it’s a rescue mission. Then your dad’s outside the cave, and it’s so unfair. You’re not ready to be found. Not just yet.
But when he looks into the cave, his eyes just … look past you.
And when he shines his flashlight into the darkness, its beam sort of … slides around you, somehow.
And he moves off to look elsewhere, calling your name again.
You reflect on the oddness of this, and you’re thinking it’s a good time to go back to camp. It’s getting late, and the cave is uncomfortably hot, and you think you may be coming down with something (and you never get sick). But before you can make your way out, something shifts in the slope above the cave entrance, and a half-ton of rocks slide down, blocking the exit. Suddenly you are very scared, trapped in darkness, wishing you had a light, even the spark of a match.
As you wish this, tiny dots of pure white light crackle from your body, coalescing into a luminous globe that lights up the cave. You would marvel at your newfound ability to manipulate light and darkness, but you are still trapped, and feeling feverish. You run your hand over the debris blocking your path. Solid. Too heavy to shift.
You remember reading something about dark matter — how it makes up 85% of the mass of everything. If you could light up that darkness, you could clear away 85% of the rockpile in front of you. Impossible. And as you think this, the wall in front of you dissolves into atoms, its very substance disassembled on a molecular level.
You stumble out of the cave into the night, thirsty and burning with fever. And waiting for you is a stranger, elegant Edwardian-style suit somehow seeming not at all out-of-place in the forest twilight. His name, he tells you, is Alleyn Adargi, and he has something to tell you that will change your life forever.
The world you thought you knew, he tells you, is false. There is not one human species, but two, one hidden from the other. For living alongside Homo sapiens is the secret race Homo obscura. They call themselves Cryptothropes. Alleyn Adargi is one of them.
And so are you. And he has come to restore you to your long-lost heritage.
What Adargi says seems unbelievable, but you have always been able to tell when someone is lying to you; and though you can perceive that he is not telling the whole truth, he is not lying. The Cryptothropes, he explains, are of ancient lineage, and always they have lived in the shadows of what they call “baseline” humanity. Their numbers are small; perhaps 50,000 in the US, less than a quarter-million worldwide. Through the millennia, Homo obscura have developed some unique racial characteristics; they are physically stronger than baseline human, resistant to injury and disease, exceptionally long-lived, and in general, more intelligent.
What truly sets them apart, though, are the unpredictable paranormal abilities that arise in every generation. Homo obscura, Adargi explains, are endowed with an unstable “cryptogene” that causes a variety of nonlethal mutations. These mutations — and the abilities they confer — can be either “Overt” (involving full-scale physical transformation) or “Subtle” (e.g. psychic or energy manipulation powers). Specific abilities are neither inheritable. Parents pass along the unstable gene, but an individual’s specific mutation is not known until the cryptogene “switches on,” which typically happens a few years before puberty.
All Cryptothropes appear to be baseline human at birth. It is Cryptothrope tradition to foster their offspring among unwitting baseline families, like cuckoos depositing their eggs in the nests of other birds. When their abilities manifest, at age ten or so, Alleyn Adargi is sent out to bring them home. A Subtle with psychic tracking powers, he is the Retriever of Lost Children for the Cryptothrope community of North America.
You talk into the night, and as your fever fades, you teeter between shock and disbelief. But you know in your heart that what he tells you is true. You have always known — or suspected. And so, on Adargi’s invitation, you travel to Cryptopolis, the hidden city of the Cryptothropes, concealed in plain sight as a luxury hotel and resort.
In Cryptopolis, you find a highly advanced and elegant culture — for outsourcing the care and rearing of young children has enabled Homo obscura to devote itself to science and aesthetics — and a cadre of young people, all changelings like yourself, learning the history and customs of Cryptothrope society. You begin training in the use of your newfound power to shape and control light, quickly developing a knack for concealment and illusion, and gaining control over your ability to obliterate molecular bonds.
In Cryptopolis, you are introduced to your birth mother, Teagan — a hideously mutated Overt whose grotesque appearance belies her great empathy and kindness, and whom you quickly come to adore. And it seems you have found the special destiny that you have long suspected for yourself. You could be happy. You could be special, and beloved, and understood.
But even in this wondrous place, you continue to notice things that other people don’t. And as always, it gets you into trouble.
Perhaps it is your study of illusion — of sleight and misdirection — that causes you to question the underlying principles of Crypotothrope society. Might the practice of fostering Cryptothrope children in baseline families be not just a labor-saving practice, but an instrument of social control? What are the ethical implications of Cryptothrope interference in — and manipulation of — baseline society? What is the fate of all those baseline human children, switched at birth with Cryptothrope cuckoos?
And most troubling of all: Why is no one else asking about this? Why is there no apparent dissent in Cryptothrope society? What becomes of those who ask too many questions, who break with the party line? What, in short, might happen to you?
Teagan — not wishing to give you up again but realizing that you are in danger if you stay — helps you escape from Cryptopolis, and gives you a mysterious gift before you go; a stolen dossier of known Cryptothrope dissidents, living in exile in baseline society. And so, with a tearful goodbye to your monstrous mother, you go on the run.
Taking the street name Judy Obscure, you lose yourself in the cities, keeping to the shadows — for returning to your foster family would place them in grave peril. You are armed only with your wits and your abilities of camouflage, deception, and destruction — a small girl, shifting for herself in an odyssey across America. But you must take care. Using your powers for an extended period causes your body temperature to spike, necessitating a period of rest — lest you run the risk of seizures, or even brain damage.
And you know, too, that even as you set out to trace the whereabouts of those who might be able to answer your questions, even as you seek to track the Cryptothropic resistance and discover the fate of the little girl whose family you inadvertently stole — the mystery girl who you have come to think of as your “shadow sister” — you are being pursued in turn.
By Alleyn Adargi. The master tracker. The Retriever of Lost Children. Who, you have learned, is your real father.
Are you an artist, writer, or terrifying combination of the two who’d like to try your hand at the Ultimate Powers Jam? Then drop me a line at bitter(dot)andrew(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll commence the dice to rolling.