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Superhumans in the CHC world are called metahumans, or "metas" for short. (The slang term for a non-metahuman is "normal.") The first metahumans appeared publicly in 1995 (though there is some evidence that a small number had been around since at least the 1950s, and of course there is continuing speculation as to how many legendary and historical figures might have actually been early-awakened metas). Within months, there were dozens around the world, and the number seemed to be growing.
Since 1995, the number of metahumans who spontaneously "erupt" or "awaken" (usually some time between adolescence and middle age, often during a traumatic event) has remained at approximately one in one million. Genetic research has not isolated a "metahuman gene." (The Galactics claim there is actually a psionic component to human physiology, which is why blood tests will never give completely accurate information where metahumans are concerned.) However, there are certain DNA markers that are highly suggestive of metahuman potential, and so it is now possible to predict someone's likelihood of being a metahuman. Naturally, a great deal of research (both open and covert) has been conducted on trying to create metahumans, using methods ranging from eugenics to gene therapy to artificially inducing stressors intended to push a "potential" meta into awakening. None have proven reliable.
What has proven reliable is metahumans producing metahuman offspring. The child of a metahuman and a "normal," whether the meta is the mother or the father, is 80%. The child of two metahumans is a metahuman 99% of the time. And metahuman children of metahuman parents usually have powers very similar or identical to their parent's.
However, metahuman potential in one's bloodline does not seem to carry between generations -- if one or both of your parents was a meta, but you are not, then your children are no more likely than anyone else's to be metahuman. This does not seem to conform to known laws of genetics, but if the Galactics are right, then known laws of genetics are inadequate when trying to explain metas.
Thus, while the metahuman population is still only a tiny fraction of the total, it is slowly growing, as metahumans have children, and their children are usually metahuman and then have children of their own. This has had a number of social ramifications.
In 2045, the Earth's population is a little over 8 billion, and there are about 20,000 metahumans (or approximately 1 metahuman per 400,000 people). The growing percentage is due in large part to several countries (notably India) and some new religious cults encouraging metahumans to have as many children as possible.
Metahumans exhibit pretty much every power that's been seen in comic books, with a few exceptions. First of all, as far as anyone knows, there is still no such thing as "magic," and metahuman powers are not truly "supernatural." (Though many metahumans with bizarre abilities manifest them in specific ways that can certainly appear magical -- if someone with the power to transform other people into animals has a psychological requirement to chant "spells" when he does it, one is definitely dancing with the Clarke theorum...)
Secondly, there are no true non-humans. (Again, as far as anyone knows...) Scientists still debate whether metahumans qualify as a separate "species" of humanity, but genetically and psychologically, metahumans are all human. (Even the aliens that are known to exist are human.) Again, some metahumans manifest their powers in a manner that transforms their bodies and makes them appear non-human.
Third, while many young metahuman fans dream of going on a pilgrammage to an eastern monastary, where they will train for years and hone their bodies to physical perfection, until they can take to the streets and fight evil -- or alternatively, apply their scientific brilliance to designing a suit of powered armor that will give them the ability to fight metahumans on an equal level -- it hasn't happened yet.
(Advanced technology is rapidly becoming capable of putting ordinary humans closer to par with metahumans, but the technology just does not exist for true "gadgeteer" heroes. The few so-called gadgeteer heroes who can turn an alarm clock, a blender, and a jar of peanut butter into a guided missile capable of shooting down aircraft are actually using matter-affecting metahuman powers.)
The Galactics claim that all so-called metahuman powers are psionic in nature, and that even the most bizarre and inexplicable "superpowers" seen on Earth are examples of psionically manipulating atoms, the five fundamental forces, and even quantum particles. There is a great deal of evidence to support this theory, but not everyone on Earth is convinced.
While every metahuman in unique, certain types of powers are more common than others. There are a lot of metahumans with super-strength and varying degrees of invulnerability, for example, while matter-transformation is much rarer. Galactics try to classify metahumans according to which psionic "Function" is being manifested, but since Earth metas manifest multiple "Functions," and in ways the Galactics thought were impossible, such classifications tend to be unhelpful.
First of all, most metahumans are simply physically superior to "normals." Even those without superhuman strength, speed, or toughness remain at or near their physical peak even without exercise. Metahumans tend to be very healthy, and this healthiness and physical superiority also means that most metahumans are good-looking -- except for those whose powers have transformed them into something inhuman-looking.
Initial evidence that metahumans also tend to be smarter than normal humans was widely criticized and disputed, but it is now established that the average metahuman has a ERCIQ of 110, compared to the average human ERCIQ of 100. This 10% margin of superiority isn't great enough to make the statement that all or most metahumans are geniuses -- however, combined with the facts that very few metahumans are below average, and quite a few possess literally superhuman intelligence, it does mean that the statement "metahumans are smarter than normals" is accurate as a generalization.
Metahumans are also extraordinarily healthy and long-lived. While metas are not immune to disease or aging (most aren't, anyway -- some are), they are resistant to the effects of both. Of the first generation of metahumans who appeared fifty years ago, very few have died of natural causes, and those who are still alive remain quite healthy and active, despite being over 80 years old in some cases.
Many metahumans have some degree of superhuman strength, speed, and/or toughness, ranging from slightly superhuman (enough to beat an Olympic athlete in contests of strength or speed) to individuals like Paladin, who is literally invulnerable to everything, and capable of lifting anything that can be lifted. Most are much closer to the lower end of the spectrum. Those that are in the upper end of the spectrum are commonly called "Bricks."
Psychic and/or telepathic powers are common, with a significant fraction of metahumans manifesting some level of supranormal perception. This ranges from precognitive flashes in specific situations (the proverbial "Danger Sense") to true telepathy, with the most powerful telepaths being able to read (or control) multiple minds from across the world. One of the most common extransensory powers is the ability to sense other metas. About one metahuman in five has this power (again, at varying levels of power and accuracy), which means that it is very difficult for "secret metahumans" to remain undiscovered indefinitely. Metahumans with mental powers are commonly called "Mentalists," "Telepaths," "Psychics," or sometimes "Psis."
Some mentalists can not only communicate mentally, but can exert mental influence or outright control on other people. "Mind control" or "possession" is one of the most feared metahuman powers (especially because of Legion and the Puppet Master, during the early years of the metahuman era), and those who possess it, even if they follow a scrupulous code of ethics, tend to make even other metas nervous.
Some metahumans can learn to shield their minds from mental powers, and even normals can learn rudimentary psychic defense (though no normal can resist a determined assault by a metahuman with full mental powers). Training in mental defense has become very popular, despite the statistically low probability of ever actually being assaulted in that manner.
Ranging from the ability to control fire or absorb and release electricity to plasma projection, these metahumans are commonly called "Blasters." Most energy manipulation powers seem to be a subset of psychokinesis (which includes telekinesis, photokinesis, electrokinesis, etc.). Some metahumans control one of the fundamental forces of the universe, giving them power over gravity or the ability to cause things to disintegrate (or detonate!) with a touch. (This overlaps with matter control, below.)
Some metahumans can, instead of or in addition to projecting energy, absorb it. They can draw heat, electricity, radiation, or even kinetic energy into their own bodies and convert it to something else. Some become stronger, some heal themselves with absorbed energy, some can project it back, and some do even more obscure things with it.
Telekinesis is the most common power to control physical objects, but some metahumans can do more than move things around. The power to actually rearrange molecules is included in powers like shapechanging, matter transformation, and animation (some metahumans can control certain types of matter; making metal flow like water or turn into fighting automatons, for example). At a lower level, some of the most powerful metahumans have complete control over matter and energy and can transform one into the other.
Frequently accompanied by the ability to sense metahumans, a number of metas can neutralize, drain, or even absorb the metahuman powers of others. These metas are often called "Neutralizers," "Drainers," or more derogatorily, "Leeches." Their power level varies as do all metahumans. Some can only shut off or weaken a single metahuman's powers with a touch, others constantly radiate a "null field" around themselves which neutralizes all metahuman powers within its radius. Some metahumans are resistant or immune to such draining. "Neutralizers" are highly prized by law enforcement, military, and corporations alike for their ability to provide non-destructive security against hostile metas. A bias in metahuman society has grown against those who can shut off or steal their powers. It is as unfair as any prejudice, since no metahuman chooses his or her abilities, but "leeches" are often unwelcome at metahuman gatherings.
Really a subcategory of matter control, but the ability to heal oneself or others is another power which is, while somewhat uncommon, not rare. Some metahuman healers have singlehandedly wiped out plagues. The existence of healers means that no disease or injury is truly untreatable, though of course there are not enough metahumans healers around to treat everyone.
Some metahumans have displayed the power to physically or even genetically transform people.
Teleportation is another power that is not too uncommon. Some teleporters can jump only a few dozen meters at a time, a few have global range, and there have been a handful that can actually teleport to other planets within the solar system. Skill and refinement also varies -- many teleporters can teleport only themselves (usually with a few pounds of "luggage," including clothing), but some can carry one or more people with them, and a few can teleport massive loads. The ability to teleport other people or objects at range is rare, but not unknown.
All metahumans are literally "superhuman" of course, but a significant number don't actually have any "comic book" powers, nothing overtly supernatural. Instead, they are just faster, stronger, tougher, smarter, more beautiful, more charming and charismatic, etc., than any normal human. Not strong enough to lift a car, but strong enough to beat an Olympic weightlifter armwrestling. Not faster than a speeding bullet (or even a train), but fast enough to run a marathon at a four-minute mile pace, without difficulty. Not bulletproof, but tough enough to get up again after being hit by a car.
Sometimes called "Paragons," these metahumans tend to be less flashy than others, and sometimes even try to keep their nature hidden (though it is not easy). Super-intelligence, in particular, may go unnoticed until it is displayed. So-called "mentats" with ERCIQ ratings that are off the scale have been responsible for numerous scientific breakthroughs and amazing organizational feats in the last few decades.
There are now a number of metrics to quantify metahuman powers, though none are perfect, nor capable of comparing two metahumans precisely. Although people like to look at "scorecards" to predict "who would win in a fight," no rating system yet devised can predict such results with 100% accuracy. However, a number of rating systems are used in the media, both scientific and very un-scientific. Most involve rating metahumans on a scale of 1-10 in various categories like "Strength," "Defense," "Versatility," etc. While anyone actually associated with metahuman science tends to scoff at such "trading card stats," some metas have been known to protest fiercely when they think they are being "underrated"!
The most popular scale to rate a meta's raw power is not very scientific, yet general enough that it's considered fairly accurate for what it evaluates. Sometimes called the "Jane's Guide" rating system (though Jane's does not publish a "Guide to Metahumans" and denies originating this system), it was probably originally invented by the U.S. Army (hence the categorizing by "military equivalence"). Because it is so simple, it's the most popular rating system used by average people and the media. Of course because it is so simple, it's often not very helpful -- how does a telepath capable of controlling dozens of peoples' minds compare in "power" or "military equivalence" to a super-strong, bulletproof meta who can run 300 mph? Furthermore, since it's based on combat ability and destructive potential, it doesn't have a lot of meaning when evaluating how "powerful" a psychic or a healer or a shapechanger is, for example (all of which would likely be given "D" ratings).
Nonetheless, many government agencies and other organizations use this system to classify metahuman "threat levels," and metas frequently use it themselves.
Class D -- Not considered a "military-grade" threat. Over half of all metas fall into this category. While probably quite formidable compared to a normal human, the meta is not considered more dangerous than, at most, a squad of modern soldiers equipped with high-tech armor and weaponry. Calling someone a "D-class meta" has come to be a common taunt between more powerful metahumans when squaring off.
Class C -- "Company grade." The meta is considered equal to a company of modern soldiers, or a tank platoon, in terms of military effectiveness. He or she can generate considerable damage and is capable of destroying vehicles and buildings, and posing a threat to significant numbers of troops. A little under 40% of all metahumans fall into this category.
Class B -- "Battalion grade." The meta has enormous destructive ability and/or is extremely hard to hurt. It is estimated that it would take an armored battalion or an equivalent level of force to take such a meta down, and in turn the meta is easily capable of destroying armored vehicles, aircraft, or fortifications. About 10% of all metas fall into this category.
Class A -- "Army grade." These metas are enormously powerful -- invulnerable to anything short of a direct hit by a cruise missile or artillery barrage (and even that is iffy), and able to lay waste to a city if they are so inclined. An A-grade metahuman is a walking Weapon of Mass Destruction, and all of them are very closely monitored. Perhaps fortunately, it is estimated that there are less than 100 Class A metahumans in the world.
Class AA -- Basically godlike. There is almost nothing on Earth that can hurt or stop the meta, except perhaps another meta. Only a handful of AA-grade metas exist, Paladin and Pulsar being the two best known.
* (Emotional-Reactive-Cognitive Intelligence Quotient, a test developed around 2010 that is considered much more accurate and descriptive than the old, traditional "IQ" score. It actually breaks up the subject's mental aptitudes into several categories and rates each one separately -- the "combined" score is simply an average, and not considered as indicative as the complete set of ratings, but much like the old IQ scores, people tend to like a single number to use for comparisons.)