Thud. Thud. Thud.
Slow, heavy stomps shook me awake, and I sat up in my cot with a start. Clearing my eyes, I looked around, adjusting to the dimly-lit safe house room. Nearby, Piston jumped out of her bed, pulling her 1911 from beneath her pillow and holding it close to her chest.
“Piston, love, it’s okay,” a tall, muscular, dark-skinned man called from the other side of the room with a slight British accent as he slowly rose to a seated position in his cot. “We’re safe.”
Textile, I reminded myself. The engineer.
“We’re safe for now,” muttered a thin, athletic man with Japanese features as he turned over in his bed to cover his head with his blanket.
Cylinder. The marksman.
After the warehouse raid two night ago, I spent some time traveling around New General City, acclimating to my new home. Piston had pulled the specifics of when and where the children would be moved during her interrogation, but we couldn’t move immediately, because until that time, the children would be held in small groups at separate locations. So, S.S. insisted that I learn the layout of the city, so I’d be more prepared to defend it.
Last night, though, I was finally invited to a safe house to meet the other two members of my team, Textile and Cylinder. They were friendly enough, but focused on the task at hand. See, our safe house’s location was planned with great detail: It overlooked New General City’s old northside public library, which would soon be holding twenty-three Mexican children.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
More stomps, closer this time, enough to rattle my bones. I checked my watch as I walked toward the street-facing sixth-story window. About six hours before the children would arrive, according to our intel.
Suddenly, something massive lumbered by the window, darkening our room as it passed. I froze, wide-eyed, as I caught a mass of thick, jointed legs and giant, pincer-like claws. Turning, I made eye contact with Piston, Textile, and Cylinder, all of whom were now gathered in the center of the room.
“What was that?” I squeaked.
Textile rubbed his hand across his bald head. “I think we should gear up, yeah?”
They turned toward the far wall, where four boxes sat. Each one had a name spray-painted in black on the side: PISTON. TEXTILE. CYLINDER. TURBINE.
Behind me, I heard crackling flames, and I hurried back to the window. Outside, I saw a man in thick, crimson body armor, head concealed in a helmet and gas mask, flying through the air. As I watched, he placed his arms together, palms facing in the direction the creature had been walking, and produced a column of fire that roared downwards at an angle.
“Dios mío, it’s Captain Arcturus!” I cried.
Piston paused from fitting her forest-green tank top over her bulletproof vest. “Yes, mate, and I’m sure we’re going to have more company soon. Keep your voice down.”
“Why are we getting ready?” I asked. “They aren’t supposed to be here for another six hours.”
“You’d think that,” Textile replied, “But what are the chances that Angler would bring a kaiju into the same area of the city as where we’re raiding? They were clearly tipped off about the men you arrested the other night, and are using this as a distraction to get the kids out early.”
“So, you think Angler is involved with the ring?” I asked.
“Oh, these assholes are always working together,” Cylinder said, shrugging a rust-red denim jacket over his white button-down shirt. Reaching down, he retrieved a solid black baseball cap, fitting it over his head. “But it doesn’t mean Angler’s directly involved. They may have just asked her to do this one thing.”
He picked up a dark brown belt filled with ammunition pouches and clipped it around his waist. As he turned, I saw two long, silver revolvers attached to the belt, one holstered at each hip.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Screams now, in the streets below. I heard shattering glass, explosions, and heavy collisions.
“Hey, Turbine,” Textile called, gesturing for me to join him at the boxes. “The Public Servants will take care of the kaiju. We have a job to do.”
I obliged, hurrying over to the man. He smiled down at me, towering above my head by at least a foot. Holding out one arm, he pointed at the box marked with my code name.
“I made something for you.”
Crouching, I opened the box, pulling out black body armor with electric-yellow highlights. I looked up at Textile, who nodded, then back down at the armor. My heart raced as I returned to my feet, quickly donning the suit. The armor was surprisingly light and flexible, but felt sturdy enough to take a few bullets. As I slipped on the boots and gloves, I felt small, metal devices inserted along the material. Curious, I glanced at Textile again.
“I put transistor coils in the suit at strategic strike points,” he explained. “Channel your shocks through them, and they’ll amplify them.”
I extended my fingers, allowing a thin arc of yellow electricity to pass between them. Cylinder wandered over to us, expertly twirling a large Bowie knife. “Why yellow? Electricity is blue, right?”
I clenched my fist, shrugging, as the energy disappeared.
“If I were to guess,” Textile chimed in, “it’s probably the same reason lightning can be yellow sometimes.”
“Why’s that?” Cylinder asked, sheathing the knife.
“Dust particles in the air,” Textile answered. “Just like with yellow lightning, Turbine here probably emits some kind of physical particle that generates the energy through friction. Kind of like rubbing your socks on carpet to build up a static charge.”
“Honestly, I’d never thought about my power like that,” I admitted. “But it makes sense.”
Textile tapped the side of his head. “If you can’t dissect how SPI powers work, you can’t properly react to them.”
“That’s why we keep this bloke around,” Piston added. “He’s the only non-SPI on our team, but he probably understands super-powers better than any SPI alive.”
“Take my own suit, for example,” Textile said, retrieving a set of powder-blue body armor and a powder-blue hooded cloak. “Look familiar?”
“It kind of looks like a blue version of The Living Mortar’s costume,” I said.
“Good eye!” Textile laughed, opening up the pieces of the armor and clamping them to his body with a hydraulic hiss. “See, The Living Mortar can change his density at will, allowing him to be light enough to fly or heavy enough to become the strongest man on earth. But, more intriguing to me, is his ability to shrug off physical force with so little effort.”
He finished attaching the armor to his body, slipping a powder-blue helmet over his entire head and face. The facial portion was devoid of all features, with the exception of two black, circular lenses over the eyes. As he shrugged the cloak over his shoulders and pulled the hood over his helmet, he continued, his voice now distorted a little as it projected through speakers hidden somewhere in the mask.
“I’m not tough like Piston, or fast like Cylinder. Still, I’m needed just as much in field as I am in the workshop, so I built this hydraulic suit with The Living Mortar in mind. It’s hot as hell and twice as heavy, but it muffles physical force, using compressed air in the frame to release stress through a series of vents.”
He gestured at Piston, who rolled her eyes, sliding her 1911 into its shoulder holster. She took a step back, then sprinted at Textile, moving so fast that she became a blur. When she was within striking distance, she raised one leg, kicking him square in the chest. I cringed, remembering the force of her blows against the men from the warehouse the other night, but to my surprise, Textile hardly budged. Instead, I heard a series of loud hisses as air escaped from small vents around the spot her boot struck.
“See?” Textile said, looking at me through his helmet’s black lenses. “Now I can take on an SPI, too.”
Reaching back into the box, he retrieved a bundle of weapons: A katana; some kind of smaller, otherwise identical blade; and a thick, collapsible blow, complete with a quiver of objects that looked more like railroad spikes than arrows.
“No guns?” I asked, glancing back at Piston and Cylinder. “I thought you all used guns.”
“Well, gunplay is sort of my thing,” Cylinder said. “And Piston just likes to be cautious.”
“I don’t like guns, myself,” Textile added.
Cylinder chuckled. “What he means is, he’s a bad shot.”
“Eh, fair enough,” Textile said, shrugging. “Also, these bloody gloves can’t fit in most trigger guards.”
He looked at me again. “I heard you don’t like guns, either.”
I shook my head.
“Well, then.” He fastened the katana to his hip, hiding the smaller blade, the bow, and the quiver on compartments along his back. When he was done, the cloak settled around his shoulders, hiding the weapons. “Let me see if I can make you something more your style. You can’t rely on just your powers and your punches. Not in this line of work.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “I figured that out already.”
Thud. Thud. Thud.
The kaiju’s steps were growing louder again. It was definitely circling the area, keeping attention away from the library. Sirens shrieked in the distance, too, now, along with the telltale sounds of battle. I turned toward the door, but Textile placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey. You forgot something.”
He handed me an ovular, black domino mask with electric-yellow outlines. I accepted the mask, frowning in confusion. “I didn’t think we really used masks or secret identities?”
“We don’t,” Textile said. “But S.S. told us about how much you wanted to be a Public Servant. Nothing wrong with dressing the part a little bit, right?”
I smiled widely, lifting the domino mask and adhering it to my face. “Thanks. This actually means a lot.”
I heard Piston load a magazine into her shotgun, and turned to see her strapping it to her back. “Time’s ticking, ladies. Let’s go.”
We hurried down the steps of the building’s stairwell as the walls shook around us. When we reached the first-floor landing, we paused at the front door, glancing out the window. As we stopped, I saw a figure streak by in front of the building at super-speed, leaving behind a neon-rainbow speed trail as they approached the distant chaos.
“Treble Clef is here,” I murmured.
“So’s your favorite superhero,” Cylinder responded, pointing at the sky.
Sure enough, I saw a silhouette streak across the sky in a yellow-and-blue costume, complete with yellow cape and domino mask. The mask seemed to float in space above an empty collar, exposing the superhero’s permanent invisibility as an unintended side effect of his other powers.
My heart fluttered, but I contained myself. I had my own job to do.
Piston opened the front door, and we hurried into the street, aiming toward the library. As we crossed it, I glanced to the left, my eyes widening. About a mile away, visible through the skyscrapers, skittered a massive, ten-story crab, its claws snapping at the nearby buildings. Surrounding it, I saw The Public Servants on land and in the air, attacking it with flames and sonic waves and super-strong punches.
“And there’s our lovely benefactor,” Cylinder commented.
S.S. rocketed overhead, the flames from their propulsion system leaving a smoke trail through the clouds. While I watched, they raised their arms, shedding an array of bright red orbs which rocketed toward the crab, exploding against its carapace.
“So that’s what plasma missiles look like,” I said. Something occurred to me, and I paused. “Wait. How did Angler get such a large animal so far inland without anyone noticing?”
“Probably the sea monkey method,” Textile responded as we reached the other side of the street.
I glanced at him. “The what?”
“Well, we’re pretty sure Angler spends most of her time in the oceanic trenches breeding things like this,” Textile explained. “She probably just made something that starts small, but grows to a massive size when exposed to something. Then she smuggled it into the city and ‘activated’ it.”
“That has . . . horrible implications,” I said.
Textile just nodded.
“Eyes forward,” Piston said. “We’re breaching.”
Not waiting for a response, she lifted her leg, kicking the library door from its hinges. As it clattered to the ground, we hurried inside.
“Probably wasn’t even locked,” I heard Cylinder mutter, but Piston seemed to ignore him.
We crept through the aisles of books, staying low as I scanned the area around us.
“Well?” Piston asked me. “What do you sense?”
“There’s definitely electrical wires leading below the library,” I said. “It actually seems to be some kind of tunnel system that congregates underneath us. Lots of people there, too.”
“How do we get inside?” she prodded.
I opened my mouth to answer, but my senses picked up activity near us. “Oh. We have company.”
We exited the aisles into a designated reading area, complete with wooden tables and fabric-covered chairs. In the clearing, about ten feet away, stood four men and two women in plain clothes, sporting automatic pistols and rifles.
“You folks lost?” one of the women asked, leveling her rifle. “Maybe you should head back to whatever pajama party you just came from.”
One of the men cocked his head as he looked us over. “Bettie, these ain’t Public Servants.”
“They ain’t nobody, now,” another man said, taking aim with what appeared to be an Uzi.
Piston grabbed me, pulling me behind Textile’s cloaked back, and Cylinder followed us. As we did, the six men and women opened fire, filling the air between us and them with bullets. I covered my ears, tensing my muscles, but Textile didn’t budge. Instead, his hydraulic suit soaked up the projectiles, and the deformed slugs bounced away, piling up at his feet.
After a moment, the gunfire ceased, and I heard the aluminum clatter of magazines being ejected. Textile crouched, addressing us.
The joins around his legs hissed compressed air, and he sprang forward, clearing the gap in an instant. His fist cocked, and as his arm vented pressure, it propelled his knuckles into the biggest attacker’s face as if they were attached to a rocket. The force of the strike emitted a sharp crack, and the recipient tumbled to the ground, seemingly unconscious.
Piston, Cylinder and I rushed to join the melee.
I reached the woman who’d spoken, Bettie, first, and decided to test Textile’s suit. Reaching out, I struck her in the stomach with an uppercut, emitting a small, harmless electric shock. As I released the energy, I felt Textile’s transistor coils soak it up, amplifying it along a series of microscopic rails. The knuckles of my gloves flared with yellow light, and I heard a sharp buzz as enough electricity entered Bettie’s body to knock her back a dozen feet, collapsing somewhere out of sight in the autobiography section.
“Wow.” I commented to myself. “Nice.”
In the corner of my eye, I saw Cylinder engage one of the men, his arm snapping out with precise strikes, targeting pressure points along the attacker’s neck and upper torso. The man tried to defend himself, but Cylinder danced around his punches, returning with a volley of his own. Weakened and clearly losing consciousness, the man tried to tackle Cylinder. My new teammate simply side-stepped the attempt, and as the man fell forward, Cylinder reached out and jabbed into a spot where the man’s neck met his shoulder. The man collapsed to the floor, unmoving.
I heard gunfire, and turned to see that the second woman had pulled another pistol, firing it almost point-blank into Textile’s helmet. He slowly walked toward her, unfazed, and back-handed the weapon from her wrist. She snarled, pulling a knife, but then Piston appeared, kicking her across the library into the periodicals.
The commotion ceased, and I surveyed the unconscious people around us. “These aren’t SPIs.”
“No,” Piston responded, “these were just a bunch of nobodies.”
“If there are SPIs below us, why would they hire these thugs to guard above-ground?” Textile asked.
I gestured toward the library’s storage closet, now visible near the back of the building. “Why don’t we find out?”
We hurried to the closet, and I opened it, reaching behind the shelves of cleaning supplies. There, I found a small, plastic switch, easily mistaken for an inconveniently-placed light switch. I flipped it, and we glanced to the opposite wall as it emitted a quiet click.
“Knock knock,” Piston said, kicking the wall. The hidden door I’d unlatched hurtled open, revealing a dark staircase.
“Who’s first?” Cylinder asked.
He looked at me, followed by Piston and Textile.
I sighed. “I guess that makes sense.”
Textile placed a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll be close.”
Cautiously, I took my first step, my black-and-yellow combat boot settling on grey concrete. The others followed me, and I scanned ahead, following the power lines in the ceiling. Soon, we reached a landing with a thick, steel door embedded in stone. I tried the handle, but the door was locked. My head tilted in Piston’s direction.
“What?” she snapped. “You think all I do is kick things?”
I saw Textile and Cylinder put their hands on their hips expectantly. Rolling her eyes, Piston took position in front of the door, raising her leg and striking it near the handle. The metal dented, but the door remained intact, so she repeated the action. It took a good six kicks before I heard the lock break, and the barrier swung open.
We moved into a large, cold room, the edges of which were obscured by darkness. The stone around us seemed clammy, wet and deformed, and I looked around. “It’s a cave.”
Something stirred in the darkness, and I registered bioelectric signatures radiating over my head. At first, I almost missed them, because they hardly registered like a human. They were . . . different. Unnatural.
“Guys?” I whispered.
They glanced at me, and I slowly pointed at the ceiling. Piston retrieved a flare from her belt, igniting it and holding it in the air. The red light revealed at least two dozen men and women, all sharply pale and dressed in what appeared to be white robes, clinging like insects to the cave ceiling. As the shadows melted away, the people glared down at us with glowing yellow eyes, hissing through long, pointed fangs.
Next to me, Textile unsheathed his katana, assuming a fighting stance. “That’s why there weren’t any SPIs above ground. It’s daytime.”
Piston nodded, unslinging her shotgun and chambering a round.
“Vampires,” Cylinder spat, readying his Bowie knife. “I fucking hate vampires.”
The creatures overhead pounced, and bodies rained down from the darkness.