Origin Story

The first announced herself six years ago. In those days there was no cause for secret identities; the networks were the ones to advertise interviews with Emily Padilla as segments on “Miss Punctuality.” They would start by detailing their attempts to make her late to the studio–a phone call on Emily’s way out the door, a slow driver planted en route. The tension would build as the appointed hour approached, until invariably the host was notified of her arrival comfortably before the scheduled interview. Emily, of course, would always insist that there was nothing supernatural going on; just good planning, something anyone could do. The more she protested, the harder the media worked to instill a sense of mystery surrounding her “power,” as they came to call it.

Others soon came forward. They often withheld their true identities from the public from the start, picking up on the superhero analogy and doing their best to sell it (though always with a dose of irony), calling themselves things like The Runner, Praxis, Logorrhea. Some of them had limited success as highly specialized athletes, performers, or intellectuals: limited, because (as it soon became clear) their abilities lay in practicing well or following a strict regimen, not in any sort of physical or mental aptitude; highly specialized, because the abilities extended only to one particular skill, exactly as one should expect. (That is, if one skill arises with low probability, then the conjunction of two skills must be even rarer!)

None of these “powered” individuals got too much attention until Joseph Kurtzweil, nickname “Joe the Smile,” publicly endorsed Plackers floss picks in an interview. Thus began the gold rush. Where previously it had seemed these powers were mostly useful for jokes about how useless they were, suddenly sponsorships were on the table. Seagate Technology nabbed Backup for a rumored $100k/year. Those interested in trying (but, naturally, failing) to emulate his good habit would have to buy hard drives from somewhere.

Later came public service campaigns and speaking engagements featuring those whose abilities were less commercially relevant. Billboards with an intent Medic (a bystander who had saved a life in a soon-widely-publicized car accident): “You, too, can keep your CPR and First Aid certifications up to date.” The Giver started a consultancy. Eunomia, Taskmaster, Charger. Many emphasized that their powers were mere skills that could be learned–broken down into easy subskills and deliberately practiced–but such claims were widely understood to be mere marketing. Who’s really going to remember to plug in their phone every night, let alone keep a spare charger at work as a failsafe? No, but people would still pay to be inspired, or at least to have spent a lot of money on self-improvement for the sake of costly self-signaling, and would still get tangible benefits from the temporary boost in motivation following a self-help workshop. Thus these activities will proceed.

Meanwhile, a group of researchers has been working in the shadows, trying to understand the nature and origin of these powers. What principles could underlie both basically-superhumanly regular flossing and thoughtful gift-giving?  Was there a reason that Taskmaster had become so much successful than the others? It almost seemed as though he was absorbing others’ powers through some unknown mechanism. But one day he disappeared from the public eye, having reportedly gotten it into his head that he wanted to summit Mount Everest, and having hence begun taking the necessary steps to eventually do so.

But it was never our goal merely to understand the phenomena at work here, and rumors of our true research program have begun to spread. Some whisper, fearfully or scornfully, the project’s codename. Is it a hint? The origin, the mechanism, the individual? Or perhaps the elusive agency administrators were fond of the aquarium, and nothing more.

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