Max 1
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It was the smoke alarm that woke Sally up.

The fourteen year old poked her head out from the fuzzy comforter and squeezed a fist into one eye, grinding away. Thumb-thick curls gushed out and framed her ochre face, tickling at her flushed cheeks.

The alarm made a warbled yelp — then died. Sally scrunched her brow and dropped her fist back into her lap, surveying their surroundings.

Nothing was out of place. Their toys, clothes, and school supplies were neatly stacked in color-coded plastic bins. Silver light seeped in through the window. Through it, she could see the moon peeking out from behind the next line of row homes. The door to their bedroom was closed.

She tugged at the blanket. Her brother mumbled and tugged back. Alex was twelve; his skin was a deeper shade of tawny brown. He kept his hair much shorter, with the curls tightly packed against his scalp. Sally lifted the blanket to slip out. She tried not to roll her eyes too much at the sight of his Spider-Man pajamas.

As she slipped free, a gulp of heat escaped with her. Alex whimpered. Shivering in the cold, Sally paused to tuck the thick comforter back around him. Then, rubbing her arms, she hopped her way to the door.

The knob was burning hot.

Sally smothered a squeal of pain and shoved two burnt fingertips into her mouth. Suckling away, she looked up. Wisps of white-gold smoke drifted out from the door's upper edge, licking at the ceiling. Her walnut-brown eyes grew wide and luminous with understanding.

She darted back to the mattress and seized the comforter. Alex squawked as she yanked it off of him.

By the time Alex sat up to stare at her, she was already half-way to the door. She wrapped the comforter around the knob, insulating it — then gave it a firm, hard shove. It opened.

Behind it, waves of scorching orange-red light rushed out to greet her.

Sally slammed the door shut and spun around to face her brother. Alex was now alert; his small face was crinkled with worry. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.

With every thump, Sally's brain burned through adrenaline as she tried to remember everything she'd been told about fire safety. The only thing she could remember was something about never opening a door when the knob felt hot. Whelp, too late for that one.

Overhead, a thick white cloud expanded out across the cracked tiles. The room was getting foggy. With each breath, Sally could taste the harsh, acrid flavor of smoke.

Sirens began to wail in the distance.

"Sally? What do we do?"

Alex's voice trembled. His eyes were like a pair of huge, dark plums. Sally swallowed down her fear and straightened her back. Her attention turned to the window.

"There," she said, and then she darted to it. After a few frantic tugs, she realized it was jammed shut. She turned back to Alex. "We need to open this. We need to let them know where we are."

"Oh. Oh — okay."

Alex rose out of his bed and stumbled toward one of the plastic bins. Wrapping his arms around it, he pulled it toward the window. Sally moved to help. They could use it to smash the glass open.

A moment before they took their first swing, they heard someone knocking.

"Hey! Hey!"

Both of them dropped the bin at the same time. It popped open; lego bricks spilled out over their bare feet and across the wooden floor. For a moment, they just stared at each other.

The knocking came again, only louder.

"Hey! Anyone in there?!"

Sally turned first. "Yes!" she squealed. Then, more firmly: "Yes. Yes! We're in here! Help!"

"Stand back!"

She curled an arm around Alex's waist and pulled him behind her. Alex hugged her tight.

Something slammed into the door. It creaked, bulging inward. Cracks split open over its surface. Sally squeezed Alex closer, turning to shield him with her back.

The door was hit again. This time, it shattered — a spray of cheap timber flew into the room. The force of the blow gouged the metal hinges out of the frame. A wave of heat and light swelled forth, crashing over them both.

When the dust and smoke settled, Sally and Alex lifted their heads.

A young man stood in the doorway.

He wasn't much taller than Sally. He wore a black hoodie, blue jeans, a polyester sack pack, and a black ski-mask. Flecks of ash and still-burning embers were sprinkled across his shoulders. The fire raged behind him.

Alex's grip on Sally tightened. He was the first to speak:

"…um, are you… are you — Spider-Man?"

There was a brief stretch of silence.

Then:

"Yes. That is exactly who I am."


Outside the row home, fire trucks and ambulances swarmed the street. Thick, grey-white smoke poured out of the second story. A growing crowd — most of them dressed for bed — watched with mounting curiosity and a hint of dread. Emergency responders maintained a perimeter, keeping onlookers back.

A brown woman with thick, shoulder-length curls was fighting her way past them. She wore a waitress outfit; her face was overcome with terror and panic. It took at least two fire-fighters to hold her back — and they were losing ground fast.

"Please," she said, her voice hitching. "Please, my kids are in there, my kids are—"

"Mom! Over here!"

Sally's voice sliced through the woman's fear. She turned to face her children. Both of them were sitting in the back of an ambulance, flanked by EMTs. They were wrapped up tight in blankets. Sally looked pensive, but relieved; Alex had a huge grin. He clutched a ski-mask to his chest.

The woman pulled back from the fire-fighters and swooped toward her children like a hawk. Her arms swallowed them up in an enormous hug that almost wrenched them off the back of the truck. As she clutched them, Alex wriggled up to shove the mask toward her — crooning over it like it was a trophy.

"It's okay, mom. Spider-Man was there," he explained. "He saved us. It was so cool."


Max stood on the rooftop's edge and watched from above.

Without his mask, he could feel the wind against his face. He was fifteen — his charcoal hair was short and dense, curled in tiny, tight loops. His skin was a deep and pleasant russet; the excitement had given it a golden glow. His head was buzzing; his body felt hot. But he wasn't tired.

He didn't even feel winded.

Max pressed his fingers to the side of his neck and checked his pulse. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump.

Slow and steady. Like he had just spent the past hour vegging out on the internet.

How strong was he? What was he?

He closed his eyes and hummed, remembering how the boy had reacted when Max pulled off his ski-mask and handed it to him. It gave him a dizzy, happy feeling.

"That was so cool."

His cellphone rang. Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a Spider—

He paused to steady himself, then lifted it to his ear.

"Oh, uh, hey, yeah mom, sorry. Got distracted. Yeah, I'm — I'm okay. I'm safe, yeah. I'll be home in just a minute. Yeah. Love you too. Bye."

He slid the phone back into his pocket. With one final glance down, he hopped off the roof — and into the alleyway below.


Xiao-shan wanted to meet somewhere where they could speak without fear of being noticed; somewhere where conversations about the strange and impossible were an every day occurrence. She also wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast.

Naturally, this meant the local Waffle House.

Peter Broderick squeezed his windbreaker close and ducked inside. The young Foundation agent manuevered his way through the few strangers that lurked around the restaurant at this hour, then settled down on the bench across from his superior officer.

Even seated, Xiao-shan loomed. The Foundation veteran's head was shaved down to a dark fuzz; despite dressing in her civvies, she still looked like a soldier. She pressed down with one hand on a folded newspaper. Her other hand was preoccupied with fishing a cigarette out of her breast pocket.

Broderick leaned back and draped his arms along the bench's spine. "They let you smoke in here?"

Xiao-shan pulled out her battered brass lighter. It had a Marine Corps insignia welded to it. With a flip of its lid, she lit the cigarette between her lips. "Let's see if anyone tries to stop me."

"Mmm." Part of him wanted to see it. His fellow agents swapped stories they heard about Xiao-shan — 95% of it had to be bullshit, but he wanted to know about the other 5%. "Any word on our little egg hunt?"

"Fuck that. Look at this." Xiao-shan slid the morning paper toward him. Broderick glanced down, lifting his eyebrows.

"Wow."

"Yeah."

"I can't believe people still print newspapers."

Xiao-shan scowled. "Read the headline, dipshit."

"Sorry." Broderick gave her an apologetic grin, then glanced down to examine the article:

MASKED 'HERO' SAVES 7 FROM TENEMENT BLAZE

"Huh. Somebody playing superhero?" Broderick scanned the article's contents. "Weird. Not seeing how it's related to our assignment, though."

Xiao-shan rolled her eyes. "There is no monster, Broderick. You and I know this is just a wild goose chase."

"Wild chicken chase." Not that she was wrong. Broderick lifted his eyes from the article and focused on Xiao-shan. "Still not following you, though."

"I've got a contact with the department. This thing broke doors like cardboard and treated smoke like air-freshner."

"Okay. So… anomalous?"

Xiao-shan's cigarette tip burned as bright as her eyes. "You remember that Saker that went missing?"

Broderick's eyebrows shot up. "Wait — you think this — shit." For a moment, he forgot where he was; his voice dropped to a whisper. "You're thinking this is the Myrmidon."

"Yeah."

His head snapped down. He started reading the article much more closely. "I mean, this would be the right area — our last report put them somewhere in southwest Pennsylvania. But would they be dumb enough to pull a stunt like this? How do you know it's them?"

"'It'," Xiao-shan corrected. "And not exactly, my young padawan. I think our little soldier-bot is malfunctioning."

"Malfunctioning how?"

She gave him that dour, dead-eyed smile. "It thinks it's people."

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