I’ve wanted to be a superhero for as long as I can remember.
When I was growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I’d watch e-news reports on New General City’s biggest heroes. Spectral Man in particular was my idol, flying around the city skyline, stopping criminals and monsters alike. There were no spectacles like that in my country, with the exception of the occasional passing sea beast summoned by Angler. Still, The Public Servants were always there to send it back to where it came from.
Oh, how I wanted to be one of them. But it seemed like such a pipe dream.
That is, until I caught a cold at age twelve, and every time I sneezed, the lights in our house went out. From that moment forward, things changed for me.
“SPI,” they called me. “Super-Powered Individual.”
I wasn’t a first-class SPI like The Public Servants, though. No, The Public Servants’ powers were intentional, engineered, designed to end a conflict that was ravaging the planet.
I, on the other hand, was one of many second-class SPIs, born in the aftermath of the Great War. Our parents’ exposure to radiation gave us mild, abnormal abilities, some of which often went undiscovered for years.
Not mine, though. After those fateful sneezes, an entire world opened up for me, literally. I could sense electrical fields, both biological and mechanical, even with my eyes closed or in the darkest of nights. People, machines, even the wires in the walls . . . none could hide from me, as long as they were close enough.
Then, six months later, I delivered my first electrical shock. I was playing tag with my cousin, but when I touched him, I felt the energy leave my body and enter his. He flew halfway across the yard, and when he got back to his feet, his hair was standing straight up.
Needless to say, he didn’t come around to play much after that.
Still, I was elated. Super powers! Me! I was just like Captain Arcturus, though with electricity instead of fire. And, well, I was much less effective.
Not easily deterred, though, I built a costume, complete with a cape as yellow as Spectral Man’s, and went to work, practicing my abilities. I even gave myself a superhero name: “La Anguila Eléctrica.” My father thought it was too feminine, and that I’d never attract any girls with this superhero nonsense, but when my first boyfriend helped me come out of the closet at sixteen, the joke was ultimately on him.
In my later teens, though, I ditched the childish costume, aware that if I wanted to join The Public Servants, I’d need to be more practical about my limitations. A few electrical shocks and the ability to kill a car battery at ten paces wasn’t going to take down the likes of Vampire King, or The Human Wolf, or Angler, or any of the other big guns that The Public Servants fought regularly. I needed to be smart, efficient.
So, I honed my mind and my body, diversifying my education between all things practical while learning fighting techniques that could defend me when my powers couldn’t. Rather than go to college, I took a variety of online courses over practical sciences, behavioral psychology, and anything else I could get my hands on that I thought would make me a better hero. When I wasn’t studying, I was in the boxing ring, learning the limits of my own body.
Then, on my twenty-first birthday, I woke up to what sounded like a jet touching down on our front lawn. Though I awoke in confusion, my family’s screams of excitement corrected my initial assumption.
It wasn’t a jet at all.
After all, what kind of jet has arms and legs?
I kicked off my blanket, threw on some clothes, and ran outside.
“Dios mío, it’s you. Sterling Silver.”
Standing in front of my house, glistening in the sunlight, was one of The Public Servants’ most popular superheroes. Sterling Silver’s metal body towered above me, at least one and a half times my height, staring down with their glowing red eyes and speaker grille for a mouth. Their joints creaked as they shifted, crouching to my level.
Despite Sterling Silver’s general ability to woo the public, they also stood as a representative of the super-powered LGBTQ community, identifying as non-binary, asexual, and panromantic. With the exception of Spectral Man, I always found that I could one day be an icon for my people like Sterling Silver was today.
“H- how can I help you?” I stammered, awestruck. “I’d invite you inside, but I don’t think you’d fit.”
Nearby, the rest of my family fawned over the cyborg superhero. Sterling Silver really was larger than life, in more ways than one.
Sterling Silver stared for a moment, then reached out, offering an oversized handshake. I obliged, my entire hand fitting inside their palm. My eyes drifted to the tiny rainbow flag magnetically pinned to Sterling Silver’s chest. Their body radiated electrical energy, tenfold more than anyone I’d ever encountered before.
“’La Anguila Eléctrica,’ right?” Sterling Silver finally asked, a chuckle in their voice.
I felt my face grow red-hot. “I, uh, decided against that name when I was older.”
“No, no,” Sterling Silver replied apologetically, holding up their metal hands. “It’s cute. Endearing. ‘The Electric Eel.’ I love it.”
I laughed nervously. “Heh. Thanks.”
“Listen, I-” Sterling Silver glanced at the rest of my family, who were now taking pictures with their phones. The cyborg put their hand on my shoulder, effortless pulling me out of my family’s earshot. “I have a few contacts in New General City. Contacts who do their best to keep track of second-class SPIs.”
“Really?” I asked, my curiosity piqued. “Why?”
“Well, we want to know who our friends are, and who our enemies are,” they answered matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” I looked down at my hands. “But, what threat do we really pose? I can’t fly around or shoot plasma missiles like you. I can’t run at the speed of sound like Treble Clef. I’m not invulnerable like Spectral Man or Miss Liquid. I-”
Sterling Silver held up a finger to shush me. “You’d be surprised how a little bit of talent goes a long way. That’s actually why I’m here. I’m building a team of second-class SPIs to act alongside The Public Servants.”
I felt the blood drain from my face as I registered what they were saying. “What- what does that have to do with me?”
Sterling Silver nodded their head. “I think you know.”
My eyes widened, and I took a step back, light-headed. “It would be an honor, Sterling Silver.”
“Please,” they said, returning to their full height, “just call me S.S. ‘Sterling Silver’ is a bit too wordy when we’re going to be working closely together.”
Working closely together. My heart pounded in my chest.
“What do you need me to do to get started?” I asked, clearing my throat so the question wouldn’t squeak.
“Well,” S.S. replied, “you should know that with New General City, getting in is as easy as-”
“One, two, three,” I interrupted in my excitement. “But, what job qualifications do I provide?”
“Let me take care of that,” S.S. assured me. “We’ll set you up with a cover career while you work with us. As long as you pass the City Certification Exam and have someone notarize your Oath to New General City, you’ll be able to become a citizen and start working with us just fine.”
“I’ll start right away,” I said. “How do I reach you once I’m in the city?”
“Don’t worry,” S.S. responded. “I’ll reach you.”
With that, they ignited the thrusters in their feet, back, and legs, and rocketed up into the clouds, leaving me standing in my front yard, dumbfounded.
A month of intense studying, self-reflection, and tearful goodbyes passed before I found myself standing in front of my assigned New General City level 1 living unit. I sighed, shouldering the strap of my single duffle bag, and walked up to the front door, putting the key in the lock. Opening the front door, I stepped inside, admiring the cool, dark living room. Smiling, I turned around, closing the door and sealing myself in the blackness.
I moved through the living unit with my eyes closed, taking in the furniture, the appliances, the walls, the windows. Though I couldn’t see anything, I could feel the current in the refrigerator, the television, even the battery-powered wall clock. In a city so reliant on electricity, the world around me lit up like a Christmas tree.
Something suddenly surged in the kitchen, drawing my attention. A small object, hidden in the cutlery drawer.
Walking cautiously into the room, I reached down, opening the drawer. Inside buzzed a silver, circular smartwatch. On the screen, “UNKNOWN CALLER” rang.
I lifted the watch out of the drawer, staring at it for a moment, then pressed ANSWER.
“Hello?” I called.
I frowned, glancing at the screen. It showed a connected call, but I heard no noise.
Inspiration struck me, and I felt along the side of the watch frame until I felt an ovular seam. Pressing into the area, I heard a click as a small object ejected from the watch and into my hand. Glancing at my palm, I examined the object; sure enough, it was a bean-shaped earbud.
I slipped the device into my ear and called again. “Hello?”
“Impressive,” S.S.’s voice rang into my eardrum. “I didn’t expect you to find the communicator so quickly.”
“Well, it’s kind of my thing, right?” I joked, picking up the watch and closing the cutlery drawer. “Why is this hidden in my living unit?”
“I want to keep you a secret, for now,” S.S. explained. “There’s a lot to unpack, both physically and metaphorically. But, for now, I have someone I need you to meet.”
“What, now?” I asked, looking around. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“I understand,” S.S. responded apologetically. “But something came up, and your abilities are exactly what the team needs this evening.”
“The team?” I grinned. “Does this mean I get to meet Spectral Man?”
“Well . . .” S.S. sighed. “Not quite. There’s a different team I want you to work with. The second-class SPIs I mentioned before. Remember?”
My grin fell. “Yeah. I remember.”
There was a second of silence, but before S.S. could speak again, I added, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled at any opportunity to work with The Public Servants. To be a superhero. I never thought this moment would come. It’s just a much . . . quieter affair than I thought it would be.”
S.S. chuckled in my ear. “That’s absolutely fair. Your team and I will explain in more detail later. For now, though, I need you to travel to the warehouse district on the northeast side of the city. Public transportation only. No ride shares or taxis.”
I nodded, then rolled my eyes when I realized that they couldn’t see me. “Absolutely. Where do I go from there?”
“Once you’re in the area, I’ll send someone to pick you up. White van, no markings. The driver will offer a security phrase: ‘You look as lost as a puppy.’”
“What do I say?” I asked.
“You respond with, ‘And you look as hungry as a wolf.’”
“Okay.” I took a deep breath, the gravity of my situation settling around me. “Wow. This is really happening.”
“Yes,” they said. “Yes, it is.”
“Do I bring anything?” I asked.
“Put on the watch you found,” S.S. answered. “It will help me keep track of your vitals and location, and it gives me a way to communicate with you whenever I need your help. Don’t worry about losing it; it has a self-destruct feature so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”
I glanced warily at the watch. “Oh, yeah?”
S.S. laughed. “Don’t worry, it just fries the internal components. I won’t blow your hand off or anything. Still, please don’t make it a habit to lose these; I make them myself, and they’re annoying to replace.”
“You got it, S.S.” I strapped the watch onto my wrist and rushed to grab my jacket out of my duffel bag. “I’m on my way.”
“Thank you, Mr. Electric Eel,” S.S. said. “We’ll talk later.”
The call ended, returning the watch to a regular clock face. I removed the earbud and inserted it back into the watch frame, taking another deep breath. As I exhaled, relaxing my diaphragm, only two words came to mind.
It took about two hours to get to the northeast side of the city, and another hour to hunt down the warehouse district. Luckily, my new watch included a maps application, so I was able to navigate using turn-by-turn walking directions on the watch face. By 2AM, I’d reached the area, and as I walked through the rows of tall, blank building, I felt unease grow in my stomach.
Before it could fester too much, I heard tires grind against asphalt, and a white van pulled up next to me, the headlights suspiciously off. I stopped moving, and so did the vehicle, so I nervously waved. The driver’s window rolled down, revealing an older, muscular, dark-skinned woman whose hair was tied into Bantu knots.
“You look as lost as a puppy, mate,” she called out in a thick Australian accent.
“And you as hungry as a wolf, ma’am,” I responded.
She nodded, turning off the car and opening the door to step out. The woman wore a forest-green tank top over what appeared to be a bulletproof vest, along with khaki pants, combat boots, and, strangely, knee pads. My gaze traveled to the shoulder holster on her upper torso, stopping at the pistol secured beneath her arm.
The woman scanned my body, literally looking me up and down. “Came a little underdressed, don’t you think?”
I glanced down at my jeans, t-shirt, and jacket. “To be fair, S.S. didn’t really tell me much.”
“Yeah, they like to do that,” she sighed, extending her arm. “I’m Piston.”
I shook her hand. “My name is-”
“Turbine,” she interrupted.
I cocked my head. “Sorry?”
“Your name is Turbine,” she repeated, showing me her wrist. A smartwatch, identical to the one I wore, rested there, displaying a small instant message on the screen. The message included a single word: TURBINE.
“We don’t use our real names or identities,” Piston continued. “I’m Piston, and you’re Turbine. That’s all we need to know. Anything else is a liability.”
Turbine. It was certainly punchier than “The Electric Eel.”
“Come around to the back,” she said, gesturing to the van.
I followed her, and she opened the rear double doors, revealing containers filled with clothes, guns, and tactical equipment. I sensed small electronic nodes in the upper and lower corners of the van, and upon closer inspection, I realized it was wired with explosives. My conversation with S.S. emerged in the back of my mind.
What kind of superhero team was this?
“Admittedly, I have a bit of a soft spot for Rock Island,” Piston said, removing her pistol from its shoulder holster and showing it to me. “You just can’t beat a classic like the 1911.”
She reached down and opened the nearest bag, revealing a compact rifle with a thick, circular magazine inserted behind the weapon’s pistol grip. Black, banana-shaped magazines filled the rest of the container.
“Similarly, the VRBP packs a punch when the target’s a little less . . . cooperative,” Piston continued. She picked up a spare magazine, exposing a bright green shotgun cartridge at the top of the well. “Couple steel slugs from this motherfucker will make Black Pharaoh himself call out sick the next day.”
She strapped the shotgun to her back and retrieved an ammunition belt, inserting the banana magazines around her waist. “So, what’s your poison?”
“Um . . .” I glanced around the inside of the van. “I don’t use guns.”
“Why not?” she pressed.
“Well . . .” I cleared my throat. “Guns are deadly. They’re a tool meant solely to kill. I’d rather rely on my own abilities. Both my powers and the skills I’ve been taught. Don’t you have powers, too?”
She laughed sarcastically. “Yeah, I can kick real good, so that’s useful in a firefight.”
I grimaced, opting not to reply.
Groaning, Piston retrieved a bulletproof vest from the van, tossing it to me. “Crikey, at least put this on. These yobbos will probably be armed, but so far they’ve had shit for aim, so they’ll probably just go for center mass. If a stray bullet finds your noggin, though, I’m telling S.S. it was your fault.”
I nodded, strapping the vest over my t-shirt before covering it up with my jacket. “What am I here to do, exactly?”
“S.S. tells me you can sense electronics,” Piston replied, closing the van’s rear doors. “I’m looking for a cache of professional-grade recording equipment, probably surrounded by a dozen people, in one of these warehouses. We got a tip they’ll be here tonight, likely bunkering underground.”
“So, you need me to find the right building?” I asked.
She nodded. “You catch on quick. The two of us are going to find it, break in, incapacitate the bastards, and have a little chat until I get the winning lotto numbers. Sound good?”
I shoved my hands in my jacket pocket, mulling over her words. “What did they do?”
She furrowed her brows. “We can fill you in on the details later, but for now, why don’t I just show you when we get there?”
Sighing, I knelt down, placing my hands on the asphalt and closing my eyes. “There’s hundreds of power lines buried here. A few have spikes of activity.”
“What’s your gut tell you?” Piston pressed.
I opened my eyes. “North.”
“Then north we go,” she said, pulling me back into a standing position. “This’ll be fun.”
We walked for a few minutes, pausing every so often so that I could collect my bearings. It didn’t take long before we found ourselves standing in front of a small, grey, nondescript warehouse. I exhaled, my breath forming a mist that dissipated into the night air.
Piston nudged me with her elbow. “Okay. What’s inside?”
I concentrated, focusing belowground. “You were right. A ton of portable electronics clustered together, and . . . I count nine people in the same room.”
“No guards anywhere else in the building?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No. They’re all in one place.”
She grinned. “Fish in a barrel.”
Reaching into a pouch on her belt, she retrieved a pair of sleek goggles, draping them around her neck. “I hear you can also disrupt electronics, right?”
“Can you kill the lights on command?”
“Yeah, but-” I gestured at her goggles. “I don’t have very finite control of my pulses. I’ll fry your night vision equipment. And our watches, while I’m at it.”
Piston shook her head. “S.S. is a clever bloke. While you were getting ready to move to New General City, they kitted out our essential tech with Faraday casings. They should hold up fine.”
“Oh.” I glanced back at the warehouse. “I guess we’re good, then.”
Dropping to one knee, Piston retrieved a small black case from one of her belt pouches, opening it to reveal an array of lock picks. She pulled out two of the slender tools, inserting them into the warehouse lock. After a moment of tinkering, I heard a soft click, and she tucked away her tools, seemingly satisfied. She reached for the handle, but paused, cocking her head.
It took me a moment to realize she was saying my new code name. “Oh. Yes?”
“Is there an alarm system?”
I closed my eyes, reaching out to the building once more. “Yes, there is. Right on the other side of the door.”
Piston sighed. “I’m glad I thought to check. Can you fry the alarm without turning off the lights?”
I shook my head. “Like I said, I’m still working on the degree of control I have. For better or worse, if I pulse, it’s gonna hit everything in a fifteen-meter radius.”
“Got it.” She smirked. “Also, you’re in America now. Land of the free, home of the inconvenient measurement systems.”
“Muérdeme,” I muttered. “I just got here today.”
Placing my hand on the door, I focused on my breathing, taking long, deep gulps of air. Around me, I felt the air begin to hum, and the hairs on my arms stood up. Pressure against my skin alerted me to an imminent pulse, and I held my breath, tensing my muscles. The collected energy washed over me, then exploded outwards, emitting a low crackle. The metal doorknob emitted yellow sparks, and I felt the electronics around me flicker and die as the power surged.
Piston immediately pulled the door open, placing her night vision goggles over her eyes. I concentrated on the ambient energy around me, using my senses to guide me through the darkness. Inside, I heard voices call out in surprise, and I felt someone heading our way.
Taking point a few feet ahead of me, Piston pressed her back against the wall, holding a finger to her mouth and glancing at me. I nodded, imitating the gesture.
Footsteps echoed against concrete stairs, and then the man was on the same floor as us, separated only by a wall. I felt him draw closer to the entrance of our hallway, and I frantically signaled to Piston that someone was coming.
She tip-toed hurriedly toward the end of the hallway, pulling back one arm as the man turned the corner. In the darkness, he couldn’t see us, but I could tell that he sensed someone nearby. He paused, reaching for something near his waist.
“Hello? Is any-”
Piston lashed out with her poised arm, striking him in the throat with her palm. He choked through paralyzed vocal cords, trying to scream, but she slipped behind him, covering his mouth to keep him quiet while using her arm to apply pressure against his windpipe. After a moment, his head drooped, and she dropped him to the floor, unconscious. Turning him over, she placed his arms behind his back, retrieving a pair of zip-ties and binding his hands with them.
We continued around the corner of the hallway, entering a larger, empty warehouse area. Piston looked around, scanning the open space, then looked at me expectantly. I closed my eyes, following the current in the wires, and began walking forward. Before I could reach it, though, the trap door I’d sensed opened, and a second man climbed into the warehouse, blindly feeling around.
I paused, holding my breath, and turned to see Piston doing the same.
The second man drew close, his anxiety palpable. “Joe? Where’d you go?”
He drew within arm’s length from my body, then turned in my direction. “Is that you, Joe?”
As he reached out, I grabbed his wrist, simultaneously placing my palm on his stomach and emitting an electrical pulse. Yellow sparks flew from the point of contact, and he flew backward several feet, landing on his back. Piston hurried over to his twitching, unconscious body, binding his arms.
“Hey, Carl, get Joe’s dick out of your mouth and hurry the fuck up,” someone called out of the trap door hole with a deep Southern drawl. “We don’t have all night to play paddy-cake in the dark.”
Piston and I traded glances, and without warning, she stepped over the edge of the hole, dropping into the underground bunker. “G’day, boys.”
I rushed to the lip of the trap door as cries of surprise reached my ears. Below, Piston had landed almost squarely in the middle of seven burly, armed men, all of whom were currently in the middle of drawing their weapons in the direction of her voice.
“Hey!” I yelled, panicking at her recklessness. “Up here!”
The men lifted their heads in my direction, but before they could react, Piston pivoted, back-kicking the closest one in the stomach. I heard ribs crack, and he flew a dozen feet across the underground bunker, striking the far wall with a dull thud.
Oh, wow, I thought. She does kick real good.
Continuing her spin, Piston swept her leg, tripping up two more men and sending them crashing to the ground. One of the men left standing finally managed to pull out his gun, but Piston grabbed his extending arm, twisting it toward the ground with a crisp snap. He cried in pain, dropping the pistol, and Piston kicked it out of their reach.
Behind Piston, I sensed one of the other men taking aim in the dark, somehow managing to line up his pistol with her back. I vaulted over the side of the trap door, kicking the weapon out of his hand as I fell to the concrete floor. He stepped back, startled, and I struck him three times in quick succession as I rose to my feet: Left inner knee, solar plexus, and chin. The final blow sent him stumbling, disoriented, and I chased him, my fourth punch cracking his nose and sending him collapsing into a pile of boxes.
“Nice work, kid,” Piston said, arresting another would-be shooter’s arm and ripping the pistol’s slide from its body to neutralize the weapon. Rearing back, she whacked the metal slide across the attacker’s forehead, dropping him to the floor. “But why didn’t you just shock him?”
“I need- hold on,” I began, wrapping one of the men in a chokehold. He struggled, and I punched him in the ribcage repeatedly until he relaxed. “I need a moment to recharge after such a potent electrical pulse.”
“Fair enough,” she responded, flying forward to knee one of the men in the groin. The force of her attack knocked him up into the ceiling, and he slammed his head into the concrete, returning to our level unconscious.
I turned to face my next attacker, heart pounding, but realized that Piston and I had somehow already incapacitated everyone. “Oh.”
“See?” Piston chuckled, turning over the closest body to zip-tie it. “Easy peasy. Let’s get them together and have ourselves a little tea party.”
It took a few minutes to round up all nine heavy, unconscious men, but eventually they sat lined up in front of us, zip-tied and slowly awakening. Piston reached into one of her belt pouches and retrieved a long, cylindrical object. She struck the end, and it ignited, filling the room with red light. I squinted, my eyes adjusting to the flare after such a long period of darkness, and Piston slipped her night-vision goggles back around her neck.
“Ah, so much better,” she said cheerily. “Now I can see your happy faces.”
I rubbed my eyes, looking around the room. Boxes filled it, covered and sealed with the exceptions of the ones I’d damaged during the fight. Moving closer, I spied what appeared to be cameras, film rolls, and other recording equipment inside.
“What are we here to stop?” I asked. “Movie pirating?”
“Are you kidding?” Piston scoffed. “Do I look like the kind of person who would spend $20 just to sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and watch Sean Bean die for the thirtieth time?”
“Who’s Sean Bean?” I asked.
She sighed. “Forget it.”
Turning to the man at the far left of our lineup, she knelt on one knee, leveling her face with his. “You seem old enough to know who Sean Bean is. Why don’t you educate my friend here?”
The man spat at her. “I don’t talk to filthy alligator bait like you.”
“Hmm,” Piston replied.
She reached into her pocket, slipping a pair of brass knuckles around her right hand. With her other hand, she grabbed the man by the neck, jerking him to his feet. As he choked, she pounded against his stomach with her metal-covered fist. He cried out with each strike, his voice almost covering the sound of bones breaking.
“Whoa!” I cried, walking toward her. “This isn’t-”
“Stay right where you are,” Piston commanded, dropping the man and leveling her finger at me.
Turning her attention back to her victim, she crouched, patting him on the shoulder as he writhed in pain. The other eight men sat still, watching somberly.
What the fuck is going on?
“So, you don’t like brown people, huh?” she asked. “Well, I hear you have a few spares on hand. Maybe you can help us take them off your shoulders?”
“I don’t have them!” he cried. “We just-”
“Film them,” Piston interrupted. “Yeah, I know. How do you think we found you, asshole?”
“Chuck, shut the hell up,” one of the other men chimed in. “Don’t tell her nothin’.”
Piston sighed, returning to her feet, and drew the 1911 from her shoulder holster. Without a word, she walked over to the man who’d spoken, took aim, and shot him in the kneecap. The sharp crack of the gunshot echoed off the concrete walls, piercing my eardrums. The recipient of the bullet screamed, swearing at Piston as blood ran down his leg.
“Piston, what am I doing here?” I demanded. “This is messed up.”
“Check the boxes,” Piston said, turning around with her hands on her hips.
I obliged, tearing open the nearest box and digging through the equipment inside. “There’s nothing here. All the electronics are fried. What is-”
“Film rolls,” she interrupted.
Reaching into the box, I retrieved a film canister, carrying it closer to the flare. I unspooled the film, holding it closer to the light. Images of small Hispanic children, no more than maybe five or six years old, filled the translucent rectangles, and I squinted, confused. More details emerged as I scanned down the film strip, and after a few seconds, I dropped it, turning away.
“The kids,” I whispered, choking back bile. “They’re . . . they’re just kids.”
“But that’s good enough for predators like these,” Piston said, returning her attention to the men on the ground. “Isn’t that right?”
The men stared, tight-lipped and dead-eyed.
Growling, I pushed past Piston, pulling the man she’d shot to his feet. “Where are they? Where are these kids?”
He smiled, his expression calm and smug, and I shoved him, slamming his back against the nearest wall.
“Don’t fuck with us!” I yelled. “I saw the film! You’re . . . you’re . . . you’re raping children!”
“No, we’re not,” one of the men behind me said. “We just film and distribute the content. Our employers aren’t too tech-savvy, so we keep them secure and anonymous.”
I glared at the man in front of me. “Is that true?”
“Why?” Piston asked. “Would that make it better?”
The man in my hands laughed, and red filled my vision. Cocking my arm, I formed a fist, collecting as much electrical energy as I could manage. I struck out, punching him in the chest, and released the energy into his body. Yellow sparks showered the air, and the force of the shock knocked him across the bunker, landing him unceremoniously on the concrete floor.
I gritted my teeth, fighting back tears. Not here. Not in front of these people.
Closing my eyes, I leaned against the wall. “Tell me everything.”
“In conjunction with local law enforcement,” Piston began, “S.S. came across a child pornography and prostitution ring online. Their methods were secure, untraceable, but S.S. suspected that they were operating within the city. One of my colleagues worked to identity the children in the videos, and we realized that they were all Mexican immigrants, unavailable in our identification database, so likely living here illegally.”
“That doesn’t mean-”
“I’m not here to judge,” Piston cut me off. “We all do what we need to survive and to live our best lives.”
“Nah, fuck them,” one of the men yelled. “They come here, leeching off our-”
Piston spun, punching him in the mouth with her brass knuckles. His teeth bounced across the floor as his head struck the ground, blood leaking from his mouth.
“The point is,” she continued, “that we found our ring’s M.O. They disguise themselves as ICE agents, raid known immigrant communities near the city’s southern border, and take the kids, killing the parents. Then they groom them for prostitution and pornography. It’s been a . . . harrowing mission.”
“Dios mío,” I murmured.
“But, we’re close to ending it,” Piston said. “See, we heard that they’re about to ship their ‘collection’ to a new location, likely in the next few days. We don’t know where or exactly when, but we knew the tech crew, who you’re currently sharing air with, would have to do the same. So, since we couldn’t find the people in charge, we decided to come for the people who don’t know how to be subtle about setting up new server farms in New General City.”
She side-eyed the men. “Isn’t that right?”
The man she’d first punched in the stomach sat up, groaning. “Christ, Greg. You had one job.”
“And that job is over,” Piston replied, offering a soft smile, though her eyes shot daggers in his direction. “My new friend? He’s going to erase every bit of data you ever recorded, and then he’s going to fry your skulls until your brains melt.”
“Uh, I don’t think-”
She turned her glare to me, stopping me mid-sentence. “Isn’t that right, Turbine?”
“Yes . . . yes, it is,” I answered. I extended my fingertips, allowing yellow electricity to jump between the digits. “So you better answer her questions.”
As I manipulated what little energy I’d regained, I inadvertently reached out again with my senses, scanning the room. Something seemed off, and I frowned, concentrating. It took a moment, but then I realized the issue: Not counting Piston and myself, the bioelectric signatures had dropped from nine to eight.
“Oh. Oh shit,” I swore, hurrying across the bunker to the man who I’d electrified a few minutes ago. He seemed still, peaceful, but I knew better. “I stopped his heart.”
I applied pressure to his chest, performing CPR. After a minute, I rubbed my hands together, collecting my energy. Pressing one palm on either side of his upper body, I shocked him again, this time acting as a defibrillator rather than a weapon. He didn’t respond, and I tried again, but I was out of electricity for the moment.
“Piston!” I yelled. “He’s dying!”
She walked over to us, reaching down to check his pulse. “No, mate. He’s dead.”
“Come on, come on,” I pleaded, continuing my CPR. “I’m not a killer.”
“Turbine, listen,” Piston said softly, pulling at me. “This isn’t how I wanted tonight to go, but you have to weigh the circumstances. Those children are a little bit safer now, thanks to you.”
“We could have arrested him, with the others,” I said. “We aren’t assassins.”
Piston cocked her head. “What did S.S. tell you? That’s exactly what we are.”
My blood ran cold. “What?”
“Assassins. Mercenaries. Spies. We’re what The Public Servants need to be, but not what they can afford to be in the eye of the people. Individuals, with powers, hunting down criminal SPIs that the cops can’t fight, using tactics that our costumed counterparts can’t be seen using.”
“Criminal SPIs?” I hissed. “These are just regular people. Pedophiles, yes, but-”
“Not them,” Piston interrupted. “The ones they’re hiding. We have it on good authority that the core ring is heavily SPI-influenced. We don’t know to what degree yet, though.”
I sighed, considering her words. She was right, of course; there was no way I’d be able to respect Spectral Man if I saw him in a dark basement, beating child predators to a pulp. I’d understand, sure, but the general public wouldn’t. They’d crucify him for his lack of nuance, for his lack of restraint, but by the time they got any answers by asking nicely, the abducted children would be long gone.
“I can’t believe The Public Servants would do this,” I said.
“They don’t,” Piston responded. “This is between S.S. and some high-ranking city officials. Completely off-the-books, even to S.S.’s teammates.”
My senses interrupted my thoughts, and I twisted around to look at the eight remaining men. “Something’s wrong. One of them is changing.”
Piston hurried to her feet, approaching them. “Which one?”
I pointed at the man she’s punched in the mouth, who was still on his back, eyes closed. “He has something in his hand. I think he injected himself with it.”
She pulled him to a seated position, and a small syringe fell from his palm, rolling across the concrete. Inside, a few droplets of black, viscous fluid shimmered in the flare’s dying light.
I squinted. “What do you think it-”
Piston drew her 1911 and shot the man in the head. Blood sprayed against the ground, and he fell back into a prone position, a perfect hole in the center of his forehead.
“Why?” I cried.
“Mummy’s Curse,” Piston replied matter-of-factly.
“What is a ‘Mummy’s Curse?’” I asked, shifting my eyes back and forth from Piston’s gun to the man she’d shot.
“Mutagenic steroid manufactured by Black Pharaoh,” she explained. “Turns a regular bloke into an SPI temporarily. Super-strength, regeneration, all that fun stuff. It’s not uncommon, unfortunately; dealers in the city are trying to turn it into ‘cocaine for criminals,’ as I’ve been told.”
“But why did you kill him?” I demanded.
“Once it hits, you’re in zombie territory. Destroy the brain, or he keeps coming. I wasn’t interested in taking him on while he was all juiced up.”
Sighing, I said, “Still, I think there are better ways to-”
I turned to gesture at the corpse, but it had disappeared.
“Psst,” a voice whispered in a Southern drawl. “Behind you.”
Piston and I spun to see the man standing a foot away, smiling, his eyes completely black. As we watched, the bullet from Piston’s gun pushed itself out his forehead, tinkling to the floor. The hole it left sealed shut almost instantly, and as his smile widened, the flare went out.
“Damn it!” I heard Piston swear, and I sensed her reaching for another flare on her belt. Before she could, the Cursed man punched her in the chest, striking her with enough force to send her sliding backwards across the concrete floor.
“I see you,” the Cursed man said in a sing-song voice, turning to me. “You can see me too, can’t you?”
Dashing forward, I tried to tackle the man, but I bounced away from his torso as if I’d shoved a tree trunk. He laughed, his hand darting forward to yank me into the air by the collar of my shirt.
“I’m going to tear your skull in half,” he whispered.
Red light filled the room as Piston ignited another flare behind me.
“Hey, fuckstick!” she yelled, dropping the flare. “Bugger off.”
In one bound, so fast that her body became a blur, she rocketed across the room, drill-kicking the Cursed man in the chest with both feet. He released me as he flew backward, colliding with the concrete wall with enough force to send hairline cracks across it. Shaking his head, he regained his footing, his attention aimed at her.
“You know,” he said, “you black bitches are only as strong as you are because our ancestors bred you for hard labor. You should be thanking me.”
He swung his fist, but she ducked beneath it, planting a few punches into his midsection. Her fists seemed to inflict zero damage, so she rolled away, barely missing a second attack. Sliding to a crouching position, she assumed a fighting stance, sneering.
“My ancestors were Aboriginal, cunt.”
She ran at him, twirling effortlessly into a flip-kick, her foot connecting with his jaw. I felt the force of the blow in my bones, and he cartwheeled through the air, finally landing on his back.
Piston drew her 1911, taking aim. “Try to stay down this time.”
She squeezed the trigger multiple times in quick succession, riddling his upper body with bullets. As she did so, he sat up, shrugging off the projectiles. When her magazine emptied and her slide emitted a hollow click, Piston shook her head, holstering the weapon. She reached for the shotgun on her back, swinging it around by the handle to aim it at him, but he darted forward, back-handing her across the face. The shotgun fell from her fingers and clattered to the floor as she flew to the side, blood spraying from her mouth.
The Cursed man stalked toward Piston, and I looked around helplessly.
What can I do? I thought. I’m a glorified Taser.
Piston struggled to her feet, spinning into a back-kick, but the Cursed man turned, grabbing her leg and using it as leverage to throw her back to the ground.
My gaze drifted from the fight and landed on her shotgun, untouched on the floor.
Pison rolled backwards, narrowly avoiding a stomp from the Cursed man that left a shallow crater in the concrete. He ran at her, but she continued her roll, planting her feet in his stomach and arcing her back to send him flying over her head.
I ran to the shotgun, snatching it up and aiming at the man. When I was sure I’d aligned a clean shot, I pulled the trigger, but it didn’t budge.
Right. The safety.
Fumbling with the weapon, I located the safety switch, flipping it. Ahead, Piston and the Cursed man traded blows, the former using her legs while the latter used his fists. As their bodies shifted across the flare-lit room, I couldn’t fire without risking hitting Piston.
My opening suddenly arrived when the Cursed man landed a lucky strike on Piston’s shoulder, knocking her to the floor. He loomed overhead, putting nothing but empty air between himself and the barrel of the shotgun.
“Hey!” I yelled, attracting his attention.
He turned to me, and his black eyes widened as he saw the weapon in my hands.
I pulled the trigger, but the gun offered only a hollow click.
My lips parted in surprise, and I tried to fire again.
The man laughed. “Performance issues? It happens.”
Piston rose behind him, grabbing him by the shoulders. “We weren’t done.”
She brought her knee up into his spine, striking him with enough force to fold his body in half with a sickening crack. He dropped to the ground, and I heard soft crackles as his back began to regenerate. He stirred, struggling to his feet, and Piston gestured to me.
“I’ll take that back.”
I nodded, tossing the shotgun to her. She caught it, reaching up to the barrel and racking a bolt on the left side. “You have to chamber a round, mate.”
As the Cursed man stood, snarling at her, she took aim and pulled the trigger. A hollow thunk filled the room as the muzzle flashed, and the man’s head exploded, bits of skull, blood, and black fluid spraying through the air. His decapitated neck stump spurted red as the rest of his body fell, lifeless, to the floor.
Piston stared at his body, shotgun ready, seemingly waiting for the corpse to spring back to life. After a moment, she relaxed, returning the weapon to her back.
“Good work, kid,” she said.
I just stood still, eyes wide and mouth agape, staring at the blood as it pooled across the concrete.
She chuckled, wiping blood from the corner of her mouth. “Ah, you’ll be fine.”
Returning her attention to the seven remaining men, she drew her pistol, reloading it. She took aim, sweeping the barrel across the lineup, and the men cowered away.
“So, are we ready to talk, or is anyone else feeling frisky tonight?” she asked. “If you’re lucky, we’ll call the cops and let them put the rest of you out of my misery.”
I’ve wanted to be a superhero for as long as I can remember . . .
But I never wanted this.