<EM>Heroes</EM> Heroes

They fly. They regenerate. They read your thoughts. But can the superpowered freaks and geeks of NBC's Heroes do battle with Fox's monolithic 24? Come January, the two megahit serials will go head-to-head, so Heroes creator Tim Kring is jam-packing his Dec. 4 mid-season finale (airing tonight at 9 pm/ET) with several seismic shocks, including the death of a character, a hero turning traitor and a prophetic painting of Hiro (Masi Oka) raising a sword to do battle with a gigantic... OK, we won't give it away. But here's what we can tell you:

· Before Heroes goes into repeat mode (it returns Jan. 22 with new episodes), Kring promises lots more insight into what — or better yet, who — is the bomb that will nuke Manhattan. "We've introduced Sprague [Matthew John Armstrong], who is radioactive and seems to be getting worse," Kring notes. "But we'll posit another theory that it's Peter [Milo Ventimiglia]. He's having so much trouble absorbing the powers around him that he goes into a coma."

· A hero "will be seduced into the web of Horn-rimmed Glasses," Kring says of Jack Coleman's character. But Kring admits this may not ultimately prove as traitorous — or tragic — as it sounds. "We're keeping things ambiguous with H.R.G. There's a lot of uncertainty as to just how bad he really is, or where his allegiance really lies. He seems to be a very loving father, so the audience should feel torn about him."

· Someone with superpowers will die. But it could have been much worse, Kring claims. "We originally intended the Grim Reaper to come sooner and more often. In fact, we started out with a couple of the heroes already on the chopping block." What saved them? "Every actor and character is working so well that it's been hard to let anyone go. Still, killing this [character] will generate a tremendous amount of story."

· But does death on Heroes really mean death? What with the flashbacks, the wild dreams and Hiro's ability to time-jump, might we see the doomed star again? "There is a fluidity to our show," Kring concedes. "People can come and go... and reappear."

· The show will gain a hero, too. Claude, an invisible man played by British actor Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who), appears Jan. 22. "He's been living with his invisibility for many years and has come to grips with it, so he'll give us a different view into this hero world," Kring explains. "He's big, imposing and charismatic, and will become a mentor to Peter — albeit a tough, reluctant and stern one. He'll help Peter learn to use and control his powers."

For more on tonight's Heroes, check out the Today's News column. For more sci-fi previews, including scoop on Battlestar Galactica, Smallville and the new adventures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, pick up the Dec. 4 issue of TV Guide.

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