Foreword: No soundtrack. This one popped up out of nowhere close to 3:00 AM. Slight bit of gore towards the end; just a paragraph or two though.
The fastest bullet in the world, widely believed to be the Winchester .223 Super Short Magnum, goes a rough 2,700 miles per hour. A little over mach three and a half.
Right now, one such bullet is exiting the barrel of a purpose-made gun. The target is no-one I know, and everything I hold sacred. She's probably no older than ten. Judging by the beat of her heart and the count of her bones, I'd estimate her age to be around eight years. The rigors of daily living -- school, with its bullies; and home, with its tyrants -- have aged her a small bit in ways that little girls simply shouldn't. Her features are as American as it can get; undefinably ethnic and not, with hair that used to be light but is now going dark, and eyes that are the light green that comes when blue turns to brown with the passage of time. Several of her teeth are missing; adult teeth are still coming in.
She's dressed to the nines in jeans and a t-shirt and Nike sneakers that probably cost several months of her allowance to buy.
The perpetrator is in his mid-teens. Just as undefinably ethnic and not, but a lot older than his body looks. It's in his eyes. I can read the decades in them, and see the scars he hides beneath three layers of clothes; including pants that've been sagged for the original reason, a hooded sweatshirt and a t-shirt so long I would've confused it as a dress if I couldn't tell his gender. His hair shows the signs of too many dye-jobs, dreadlocks and gel; he'll go bald sometime in his late 20's. If he lives that long. He's wearing a pair of Nikes that were probably bought with their weight in cocaine, blood and tears. I can smell the drugs and abuse on him from here.
Among the many truths that have propelled me to a level of international recognition unknown by any living, earthly man, is that I can travel faster than a speeding bullet. If I set my mind to it, I can outrace a Winchester .223 while running backwards on one foot. But there are times when even my speed isn't quite good enough. I could try some other power, but I don't. If I did, the best I could do is reduce the bullet to molten slag that would just burn right through her left eye and kill her anyway. If I tried to blow it out of the way, I would just slow myself down. All I can do is keep moving, and start praying.
Because there are bigger things than me, and every now and then, the world likes to remind me of that.
It's made out of cardboard and glass. If I don't stay in control, things break. People break. People die. My first experience with the powers that gave me my name was as a toddler; I broke a crib, my door, and almost killed the family dog in the middle of a temper tantrum. Later, I started moving so fast -- thinking so fast -- that the world was in slow motion for a month and I couldn't even understand what was being said to me. Not long after that, I looked through a woman's clothes. The same day, I made the juvenile mistake of telling my father. Three smacks later and I realized I'd never gotten hurt because I was nearly indestructable. Three more and my father grounded me for a week after his hand broke on my cheek. That night, I stared at a wall so hard that it burst into flames. Then I put out the fires by taking a deep breath to try and scream for help. I also put my parents in the hospital with damaged hearing that still hasn't recovered after twenty years.
I don't know where the flying came from. One day I leapt a tall building, then never hit the ground.
But there are still things I can't do. Apparently, putting the world on hold to save one life is one of them.
I come in fast. So fast that a normal man would be flayed to the bone. One arm tucked in, the other reaching. Legs closed, and the cape is clutched between them at the ankle. It's not a drag so much as it's a rudder. It used to be a drag, mind you. Back when I was just running and jumping and honestly afraid that I might not be tough enough to survive the landings and the crashes. It was a parachute with style. My suit's designed to minimize drag, and the cape's meant to do that now too. Everything's smooth. Perfect.
Everything but me.
If I'd been an inch closer, I could've stopped it easily. But an inch is forever when you're racing bullets and someone's life is on the line. I reach for it. Reach hard, until the joints in my arm refuse to stretch any further. Can't spread my fingers; the bullet might go between them, or the spread might slow me down. Almost there. Almost.
The bullet hits. With how fast I can and do see the world, it's not a pretty sight. Maybe if I was faster, I could take the bullet out in mid-impact. Cauterize the wound, take her to a hospital. She'd be disfigured for life, but she'd have a life in the first place. My speed isn't good enough though. I watch the bullet hit her in the eye and go right through, rupturing it with a gory little shudder and a tiny circle of burnt meat churning into the space in front of her. By the time I get there, I'm turned to watch the bullet tunneling through parts of her brain; even if I was fast enough, it'd be a moot point now. My fingers are too big. My hands too clumsy. My eyes are not though. I studied hard in college. If I hadn't opted for journalism, I would've become a surgeon of some kind.
Maybe every kind.
It pops out of her skull with a much larger spray than what happened when it entered. Bone chips and little bits of scalp, hair and brain matter spew out as well. I'm just fast enough to catch every single one of them, if I wanted, but I'm more focused on something else.
I look into her remaining eye, and I listen to the vibrations in the air, and I grab her just in time to feel it happen.
The life of her stops. There are no tears on her face. There is no dying breath. She's gone by the time I've got her in my arms. What's left is a small, frail little body with some organs that haven't quite stopped functioning yet. A few fractions of a second later, I've got a hand on the back of her head. Her face is on my chest. Another bullet pings off of my back, but it's a fat load of good that does her now.
Time speeds back up, and I can hear frantic shouting. Absolute terror. At this point, I've already gotten past the initial shock. Now comes justice.
Now comes justice, with the blood of the innocent on my left hand.
He tries to run, of course. But he's not even done blinking when I catch him. The act of clutching him around the throat with my blood-stained hand is intentional. The act of breaking his larynx isn't, but I stop short of going further. That's an easy line to cross. There's no going back once you do it. I could though. I could and there isn't a Judge or Jury on this planet or the next fifty-two that would convict me for it. People would probably praise me for slipping my grip though. A hangman's thumb here; choke him to death without meaning to. A slight squeeze there; implode the bones of his neck. Worst case scenario, I could just pop his head off.
But I don't.
I won't lie. I really do think about it. I really do wish I could. But I don't. I'm better than that, because I have to be and because I could never live with myself if I wasn't.
A few seconds later though, I still throw him through the front door of the nearest police station. I know I shouldn't, and I normally wouldn't, but even I have my limits. After that,
I drop the body off at a hospital. Nowhere in particular. Just close to where I found the scene playing out. With a note; an apology and a request.
That night, I come home from the day job that got me a Pulitzer. My wife's off on location. I am alone. Which is true, since I'm always alone and there's nothing that can change that. When I'm done cooking a simple dinner, I sit down in the living room, turn on the television and allow myself a few minutes to pretend that I am not who the world believes me to be. Because, really, I'm not.
At the earlier note's request, the news stations show her picture. They give her date of birth and death. List her mother's name; her father was already dead. No brothers or sisters. An older cousin who gives a statement. A lot of new friends who never really got to know her at all. I'm one of them.
Tomorrow, I'll write her an obituary. I'll rationalize it to my coworkers as wanting to tell the story of someone Superman couldn't save, because it's true. Because I'm not Superman at all. Superman doesn't fail.
My name is Clark Kent. I'm just a man, and sometimes I do.