Eamon Birdsley slowly opened his eyes. And blinked in amazement.
He was up on his feet, standing on a polished linoleum floor in a garishly lit corridor lined with silvery metal walls. Where was the paddock? How on earth did he wind up in this weird place?
Glancing down at his slipper shod feet, he wondered where his sandals had gone. That was not the only item of his school uniform absent. Missing also was his shirt and shorts. Somehow Eamon had stripped down to his lily-white jockeys! Suddenly feeling self-conscious, he was glad that his mother always made him put on a fresh pair of underpants every morning.
Movement behind him made Eamon realise that he was not alone. Turning hesitantly around, he found himself at the back of a very long queue of variously aged children dressed alike in their underwear; whites, blues and reds for the boys; pinks, yellows and creams for the girls. The line stretched endlessly down the corridor to be lost around a distant corner.
Eamon eyed the back of the neck of the boy in front of him. It was pimply and sprouted dark hairs like weeds. Mustering what little courage he possessed, Eamon tapped him on the shoulder and politely asked, "Excuse me, but where are we?"
Eamon was amazed again. For the first time ever, he had not stuttered.
The boy in front sneered back over his shoulder at Eamon. Shorter and chunkier than Eamon, his heavily pimpled face marked him as being five or six years older. "This is the basement of the Super League Recruitment Centre," he said superiorly, as if Eamon ought to already know what building he was in.
None the wiser, Eamon asked another question and did not stutter again. Amazing! It was no fluke. "What do they do here?"
"Dole out superpowers, meathead. Don't you know anything?" Pimple Boy faced Eamon. "This is where nerdy kids, like you and me and all them other losers--" he hiked his thumb over his shoulder at the rest of the kids in line, "--get the chance to become junior superheroes."
"To show the smug jocks that you need brains to control brawn." Pimple Boy shrugged. "To make us better than them."
Peering past Pimple Boy, Eamon could indeed see that the queuing kids belonged to the groups hurtfully labelled as school misfits; podgy boys, gangly girls, skinny boys, dumpy girls, kids with glasses, kids with cases, tomboys, girly boys, book readers, music players. There was not a single athlete in line.
Try as he might, Eamon failed to glimpse any sign of his friend Chortle up ahead. He concluded that his tuba-playing pal must be out of sight around the far corner.
"What sort of powers are you hoping to get?"
Eamon blinked at Pimple Boy. "We don't get to choose?"
"Course not. You get tested and they decide which powers best fit you."
"The Selectors." Pimple Boy prodded Eamon's forehead with a pudgy finger. "For somebody wanting superpowers, you sure don't know much about the process." He rudely turned his back on Eamon, ending their conversation.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor and the waiting children glanced about to see who was making them. Two strangely garbed men approached the line from the rear. One was outfitted in a lumbering mechanical suit and clanked when he walked. The other, lankier and costumed in a yellow mask and black bodysuit trailing a shiny blue cape dotted with white stars, strode confidently along in red leather knee-boots. Each man carried a plastic cup brimming with hot coffee. They were talking easily and in a friendly manner.
"You're Mighty Man!" Eamon gasped as the costumed fellow walked by.
The big, amazingly dressed man stopped to regard the awestruck boy. Square-jawed, impressively muscled, a blazing sun superimposed with a crackling lightning bolt emblazoned on his broad chest, he looked every inch the superhero type.
"Young Birdsley, if I'm not mistaken," he rumbled merrily, placing a huge, orange-gloved hand on Eamon's shoulder.
Eamon was flabbergasted. "You've heard of me?"
"I know all my readers," stated the comic book legend.
"I'm your biggest fan!"
"Actually, you aren't. My mother is," Mighty Man divulged. "But being my second hugest fan is still a big deal."
"The brats always overlook me when I'm out with you," the man in the robotic suit grumbled. Leaning past Mighty Man, he offered to shake Eamon's hand with a fearsome looking mechanical claw.
The boy shrank away. The armoured man had a craggy face only a mother could love.
"You are Doctor Dearth," snarled Eamon, "Mighty Man's sworn enemy."
"I prefer the term nemesis. It sounds more professional."
Eamon grew confused. "You two should be fighting."
"We're on our coffee break," explained Mighty Man.
"You can't expect us to do battle all the time," added Doctor Dearth. "These are just our day jobs, after all."
Eamon frowned. Superheroes and Supervillains must only work from nine to five, like ordinary folk. How boring.
Doctor Dearth began ringing like an alarm clock. "Time to get back to work, Elmo," he urged Mighty Man. "You were on the brink of saving the world, yet again, and once more that means defeating me." He sighed unhappily at the prospect of losing like he always did.
"Righto, Doc." Mighty Man crunched Eamon's mitt in a mighty handshake. "Nice meeting you, young Birdsley." He paused while squeezing Eamon's hand and gazed along the queue, noticing the boy's unlucky place last in line.
"Can't have my number two fan stuck waiting in line all day," he said, pulling Eamon out of the queue and propelling him forward with an ungentle shove. Mighty Man did not know his own might.
Eamon could not believe his good luck. Neither did Pimple Boy, his face flush with envy and fit to pop.
Ushered down the corridor past other jealous faces, the supermen walked Eamon along the waxy green lino under the glaring fluorescents. They walked and walked and walked until Eamon's legs ached. And the intriguing corner never once got closer.
A fully laden golf cart drove past them heading in the same direction. The driver seemed ordinary, dressed in plain grey overalls. The cart's three passengers were extraordinarily attired. Each was costumed and sported wings; the first had batwings, the second hawk wings, and the third mechanical wings.
Eamon gazed jealously at the trundling cart. "It would be quicker if you just picked me up and flew," he suggested to Mighty Man, "or Doctor Dearth could pop out his foot wheels and roll me all the way there."
The superhero shook his masked head. "Can't do that, son. When we're off the clock, even on a five-minute break, our powers our paused."
"That's daft!" Eamon blurted.
"That's the rules," said Doctor Dearth.
"Superheroes have rules to obey?"
"And paperwork. Mountains of forms to fill out in triplicate," the bad doctor griped.
Eamon did not like the sound of this trainee super-being business. He never thought superheroes would have homework!
By and by, they gained the corner and strolled around its curve. Eamon was grateful to see the end of line dead ahead, halted before a series of giant steel doors studded with rows of rivets. Each door sported a square white sign with loud red lettering; roman numerals numbered from one to ten. And before each door a brown suited, bespectacled man sat with a clipboard on his knees, scribbling.
Addressing the nearest clerk, Mighty Man said, "George, this young chap is Eamon Birdsley. Do me a favor and get him checked in pronto."
George scanned down the typed list clipped to his clipboard and with a red pen ticked off a box. "Birdsley. Check. Hang on a mo. This must be a typo. According to this, your birth date is all sixes."
"That's right,' Eamon proudly confirmed. "Is that a problem?"
"Only if you sprout goat horns," George said.
"I'll vouch for the boy," Mighty Man offered.
"Your word is good enough for me, MM," nodded the clerk, accepting the caped crusader's recommendation.
Getting back into character, Elmo said rather formally to Eamon, "This is where I must take my leave of you, Master Birdsley. When you get fitted up, come see me. I might be able to persuade my writers to give me a sidekick. Well, must dash to continue to fight the good fight, to uphold truth, justice and the non-American way."
"Oh, brother!" muttered Doctor Dearth. "Elmo always does overact. He'd be better off performing Shakespeare."
"That's what my dad does," beamed Eamon. "He's a famous stage actor."
"Really?" said Mighty Man. "Think he could get me an audition? I'm tired of this gig. My bodysuit chafes my thighs something terrible."
"You would still have to wear tights doing Shakespeare," Doctor Dearth told his rival, a wicked grin smearing his lumpy face. "Good to meet a fan face-to-face, kid. Don't stop buying our comic."
"My comic," corrected Mighty Man. "I am the hero and you're the villain, remember."
"Something you constantly keep reminding me of!" moaned Doctor Dearth. "Don't forget, fancy pants, I make you look good."
"And without me, Dick, you'd be an out-of-work can opener!"
Arguing like an old married couple, they left Eamon to the clerks. The boy hoped they were just slipping back into their roles, but could not be completely sure.
Eamon noticed where they were heading, and his mouth dropped. It was a huge, rock-walled hanger housing every thinkable -- and unthinkable -- example of futuristic transport: rocket-powered glider sleds, stealth blimps, strap on jet-assisted wings, hoverbikes, transformable planes, robo-feet, truck-tanks -- even an anti-gravity engined solar windsurfer. Off to one side jet-powered hydrofoils, oil tanker-sized hovercraft, and winged submarines were moored in a large artificial harbour. Mighty Man and Doctor Dearth climbed aboard a helijet that seemed a cross between a Jumbo Jet and a windmill that lifted off into the blue sky through a football field-sized hatch in the lofty hanger ceiling.
"When you're done gawping, sonny, you can step through this door and be assessed."
Eamon whirled around, unsure which of the clerks had spoken to him. If it was George, he did not raise a hand to identify himself. In fact, they all gazed down their spectacled noses at Eamon.
"Door number four," they all said at once.
Shuffling over to the door marked with a crimson IV, Eamon wrinkled his face in confusion. There was no handle. About to ask whether he should knock, the door slid sideways and Eamon Birdsley, hearing a loud noise like a vacuum cleaner, was sucked inside.