Two things I love are fiction in the form of “alternate reality journalism” and super heroes. So here’s something that combine the two.
Unless you are a recent arrival from a parallel universe, you have spent the last week memorializing super-heroic paragon Exemplar whether you wanted to or not. Ten years after his death in the line of duty against would-be world conqueror Oversword’s devolution bomb attack against Washington, D.C. we are still writing op eds, holding candlelight vigils and throwing solemn parades in his honor. If first anniversaries of major, tragic events are the hardest, tenth anniversaries are the worst: the pain has all but disappeared and all that is left is a desire to exalt the heroes and editorialize on the events impact and relevance ad nausea.
Exemplar, now known to be a synthetic being sent back in time to our era from the year 10,000 AD (more or less), was a tireless champion of nothing so much as life. A being with his powers could have changed the course of history forever, as easily as he changed the course of mighty rivers, but instead he focused on individual lives. While there are no recorded instances of Exemplar pulling kittens out of trees, his recorded activities are no less cliched: pulling children out of burning buildings, stabilizing earthquakes with sheer physical force, plugging erupting volcanoes and draining flood waters by tilting landmasses. The power at Exemplar’s disposal was immense, almost unimaginable, yet he never exerted it against one regime or another, no matter how vile.
In 1971, Walter Cronkite in a live televised interview asked Exemplar why he did not intervene in international conflicts or political affairs. Exemplar (and remember, we did not know then either that he was not human or that he was from the far future; at that point we assumed that Exemplar was, like most super heroes, a gifted individual with a secret “normal” life) responded with the following:
“Every life is sacred. You can’t begin to imagine how important one life can be. All the things a person does, from their first cries all the way to how they die has an immeasurable impact on everything around them. Even if a person does not seem to do anything great or important with their lives, who knows what their kids or grand kids or ten generations later descendants will do. Life is funny that way; it is totally unpredictable but at the same time we can see how it might turn out.”
Year later, after the massacre at the 1988 summer Olympic Games in Seoul at the hands of The Hive, Exemplar said: “Thousands of lives from hundreds of nations, all extinguished. The potential futures they created by their very existences have been snuffed out, leaving a void in eternity that can never be filled.”
It was after this incident that Exemplar “came out” as both a time traveler and a super-sophisticated artificial being. He later admitted that he did so at least partially out of guilt. After all, The Hive was not only a collective of autonomous machines, but literally one of his ancestor entities.
After this revelation Exemplar’s heroic career was often sidetracked by requests for information about the future or accusations about his motives in saving the people he did. Hero turned villain The Seer, who used genius level mathematical intellect to calculate probability, accused Exemplar of having a secret agenda. He suggested that Exemplar was trying to establish a future timeline in which he was supreme ruler of the world by laying the groundwork in our present, on the corpses of those he did not save. Most people did not buy the crackpot theory of a known criminal, but a few did. And some of them were United States Senators.
It is unfortunate that Exemplar’s last few years were so tarnished by politics and media glad handing. Sadly, it is what people seemed to be in the mood for: stories of Exemplar saving busloads of school children were given short shrift while every self identified lover or nefarious ally was given a microphone. In the 1990s, we wanted to deconstruct our heroes and Exemplar, being the best, suffered the worst of it.
Washington happened when Exemplar was almost considered a villain. His legacy had been tarnished and his status as a synthetic entity was being held up as evidence to mistrust other such beings, including The Perfect and Queen Calcula. Time travelers like Mister Know-It-All did not fare much better. Even so, Exemplar carried on. Without a “secret identity” or even the need for a “normal life” (even though he indulged in one periodically throughout his career; portions of his strange relationship with Post reporter Angie Abernathy filled many a tabloid during the ‘60s and ‘70s) Exemplar was able to ignore most of the bad press and keep operating as he normally did. The only difference was he tended to flee the scenes of his activities upon the arrival of authorities and reporters, instead of staying to give statements as he used to do.
Oversword acquired his devolution weapon from members of the villainous, international weapons manufacturing organization called Armament. From interrogations after the incident, his goal was to turn the entire population of Washington D.C. (specifically the members of the government) into proto-human cavemen, thereby bringing the nation to its knees, ripe for Oversword’s plucking. Of course, Exemplar was aware of the plot — how has remained a mystery; some suggest Exemplar accessed a database of past events (from his perspective) but others have argued every change he made would further invalidate any record of events he possessed from the future — and interrupted Oversword’s attack.
It seems that even Oversword was surprised when Exemplar flew the devolution bomb into space and was caught in the blast, turning into a typical Hive drone and burning up upon re-entry. That the devolution bomb would work on artificial beings as well as biological ones was unexpected by all.
Or was it? Throughout his career, from his first appearance in the aftermath of World War 2 to the day he was “killed,” Exemplar displayed not only an uncanny understanding of the enemies he fought but of the course of events in the world at large. He never seemed taken off guard, even after an apparent defeat or event he could not stop. Maybe there is something to all those conspiracy theories about Exemplar.
In either case, the parades an memorials go on. Like all good martyrs, Exemplar received a white-washing upon his ultimate sacrifice and is now enshrined in museums and in public squares by statues, plaques and displays as the greatest of all American super heroic champions. So you will have to forgive me if I shed no tears for the time travelling android that could very well have planned his own “death by devolution.”