Another truck rumbled past our nondescript blue sedan, its tires vibrating the asphalt. It shifted its brakes as it passed, emitting a squeak that bounced around the underpass beneath which we were parked. Pop music trickled through the radio speakers, so low that I could barely make out the lyrics. Cylinder shifted in the driver’s seat next to me, checking the time again.
“Shouldn’t they be here by now?” he asked his watch.
Piston’s voice crackled in our earbuds. “Patience, mate. What, you have a hot date somewhere?”
Glancing out the driver’s side window, Cylinder sighed. “I mean, I could.”
After the bank robbery, Piston and I passed on our tip about the teller and the mind-control earpieces to S.S., who launched an investigation on our behalf. We, however, were needed elsewhere.
The Russians were in town.
“If S.S. is so certain that these Russian diplomats are working with supervillains in New General City, why don’t they just have them arrested while they’re here visiting?” Cylinder asked.
“Diplomatic immunity,” I quietly answered.
Cylinder glanced back at me, rolling his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. But now we have to stop a car on the way to the airport, abduct their analyst, and get away without attracting too much attention? That’s a pretty big ask.”
“S.S. wouldn’t assign us this mission if they didn’t believe we could do it,” Piston added in our earbuds. I could hear cars speeding past her in the background of the transmission. “We’ve faced bigger challenges with fewer resources.”
The song on the radio changed to a familiar one.
“Mr. Mystery, you must’ve missed me!
Mr. Mystery, you make me miserable lately.
Mr. Mystery, maybe we could make some
Magic, oh baby, sweet Mr. Mystery . . .”
Cylinder reached up and turned the radio off. “God, they play Erica Leroux’s music all the time now. What happened to Ivey Watson? I liked her better.”
“I heard she’s working on a new album with her aunt, of all things,” I responded. “I guess once you’re in the game, you don’t leave ‘til you’re dead.”
Cylinder grunted, pulling out a pair of large, black, angular, short-barreled revolvers. “Sounds familiar.”
He flipped open the guns’ cylinders, inserting five silver, canister-shaped projectiles into each weapon before snapping them closed.
“What happened to your Peacemakers?” I asked him, referring to the revolvers he’d used during our fight against The Last Patriots and Vampire King.
Glancing over at me, he smiled. “You gotta pick the right tool for the right job. My Peacemakers only hold regular bullets. These crowd-control Udars can fire less-lethal plastic rounds; or, in the case of the extra one I gave Piston, aerosolized tear gas. We’re not trying to rack up a body count today.”
“Surely there’s better choices out there than old handguns though, right?” I pressed.
I heard Piston chuckle in my ear. “He’s a gifted SPI, but his ability comes with a bit of a neurosis.”
Cylinder grimaced. “Thanks, Piston. You’re a peach.”
He turned back to me. “As you’ve seen, my SPI ability really boils down to above-average accuracy and reflexes, particularly in the context of using firearms. When I was younger and still identified as a girl, my parents insisted that I perform trick shots at New General City gun shows, using a Wild West motif. I was quickly dubbed ‘The One-Shot Sweetheart.’”
I cringed, and Cylinder laughed at my expression.
“Yeah, it wasn’t great times. Eventually, I fought back against my family, both about my gender identity and about how my talents were being exploited. After I left home and transitioned, I stopped talking to them; that was fifteen years ago. Still, any time I try to use other types of firearms besides the revolvers I grew up training with, I choke. It’s some kind of mental block I’m still working to overcome.”
Averting my gaze, I fiddled with the yellow bandana in my hands. “I’m sorry, Cylinder.”
He clapped his hand on my shoulder, shaking me a little. “Don’t be! These things come in all shapes in sizes. I’ve never found myself without one that fits my needs.”
His eyes drifted down to my boots, next to which sat a wide, flat case. “Speaking of which, have you tested Textile’s new toy yet?”
I glanced at the floorboards, shrugging. “Not a lot of time. S.S. kinda sprung this mission on us at the last second. I suppose a field test works, yeah?”
Cylinder snorted. “I like your style.”
My mouth formed an involuntary grin. “Thanks! I just wish Textile was recovering faster from the fight with Vampire King. I like working with him.”
“Yeah, mate, he’s a big ol’ softie,” Piston said in our ears. “Heads up. I see the convoy.”
I reached up, tying my yellow bandana around the lower half of my face, and Cylinder followed suit with his own red one. We adjusted our street clothes, which we’d chosen in favor of our regular mission-ready attire, since today’s plans weren’t exactly legal.
“On your mark, Piston,” Cylinder announced into his watch, unlatching the driver’s side door.
I followed suit with the passenger’s side door, looking behind me. In the distance, I spied six black sedans approaching us, covering both highway lanes in a two-by-three grid formation.
“Which one is the analyst in?” I asked.
Cylinder checked a message on his watch. “S.S. says they bugged the car with a high-range tracker. You should be able to see that, right?”
I narrowed my eyes, focusing on the convoy. “I’ll try.”
Cell phone signals and radio waves and ambient electrical energy bombarded my brain, and I fought through the barrage until I found an unusual spike in activity attached to one of the six cars.
“That one,” I said. “Rear row, our right side.”
“You know what that means, Cylinder,” Piston chimed in.
He sighed. “Yeah. It’s gonna be a fun drive.”
The convoy was seconds from the underpass now. I opened the case at my feet, extending my hand and emitting a tiny burst of energy from my palm. From within the case rose a circular metal blade the size of a dinner plate, the center of which housed a hollow compartment with an embedded grip for my fingers. The blade snapped up to my hand, the grip portion’s special attraction to my bioelectric signature magnetizing it to my palm. I curled my fingers into the hollow compartment, keeping the weapon close to my side as I waited.
Cylinder whistled. “Boy, that’s neat.”
I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. “If what Textile said about this thing is true, it’s about to get a lot neater.”
“Incoming, boys,” Piston interrupted.
The first two cars passed us, entering the shade of the underpass, followed by the next two. As the last pair of vehicles approached the space, I saw a figure fall into view, as if from the sky; I, however, knew better. She’d boldly leapt from the overpass above.
Piston landed directly in front of the analyst’s car, the green bandana around her face fluttering in the wind, and immediately lashed out with a front-kick into the hood of the car, planting her other leg into the asphalt. The metal hood crumpled, the force of the blow sending hairline cracks along the entire front windshield, and the car halted almost instantly, only skidding her backwards a few feet before she found her footing. The tires smoked as the driver screeched in place, held back by the power of Piston’s leg muscles.
Of the other five cars who’d already passed us and exited the other side of the underpass, three swerved to a halt, while the other two continued towards the airport, likely prioritizing their onboard personnel. Security guards began climbing out of the three stopped cars, retrieving their firearms, but before they could take aim, Cylinder shouldered through the driver’s side door, popping off a quick series of shots with his Udar revolvers. The plastic bullets found their targets, and the guards fell back into their cars or out of view on the street, stunned.
I turned my attention back to the car Piston had halted, bursting from the blue sedan and sending a pulse into the circular blade I held. Electrical arcs crept across the special alloy Textile had used, absorbed into the metal like a lithium-ion battery. After a second or two of “charging” the blade, I extended my arm, releasing the grip. The blade rocketed from my grasp, propelled away by reversing its magnetic attraction, and embedded in the crumpled hood of the analyst’s car twenty feet away, releasing the electricity it had stored. The car sputtered and the headlights flickered as the engine instantly died.
Through the cracked windshield, I saw the car’s inhabitants shift quickly, and both the driver’s and passenger’s side doors opened. Armed guards emerged, wielding pistols, and Piston responding by drawing her own Udar revolver, firing a cloud of tear gas almost point-blank into each of their faces. They stepped back, coughing, and Piston hurried around the front of the car to the driver’s side, kicking a hole through the open door and sending the driver flying back a dozen feet.
The tear-gassed passenger wiped his watering eyes, taking aim at Piston through the dissipating cloud, but she shot him again with a new burst from the revolver, sending him into another coughing fit. By then, I’d reached the passenger’s side door, and I extended my hand toward the circular blade still embedded in the hood, summoning it. It wobbled for a second before ripping from the car, streaking through the air and sticking to my palm. I tightened by fingers around the weapon’s grips and swung my arm, smacking the second guard in the face with the flat of the blade. Something in his nose snapped, and he crumpled to the ground.
“You and that thing are getting along just fine,” Piston commented.
I glanced down at the blade. “I think I’m in love. Mi amor, mi pequeño Púlsar.”
“Pulsar, huh?” she replied. “It’s catchy.”
Behind us, the gunfire died down as Cylinder’s revolvers emptied, and he ducked back into the car to reload. As he did, the injured – but not incapacitated – guards from the other three cars began to poke their heads around the vehicles, taking aim at us.
“Time to move!” Piston continued, raising her leg and striking it against the driver’s side rear window, shattering it. A voice inside protested, but she raised her Udar, expending the last two tear gas rounds into the back of the car.
On the other side of the vehicle, I raised Pulsar, smashing the blade against the passenger’s side rear window. As the glass exploded inward, I leaned inside, closing my eyes and holding my breath. Using my electrical senses, I located and reached out for the analyst through the tear gas, grabbing the front of his shirt and dragging him through the window. A thin white man in coke-bottle glasses and a brown tweed suit landed on the street, coughing and protesting.
Behind us, the security guards from the other vehicles opened fire at us, and we ducked for cover beneath the analyst’s demolished car. I sensed Cylinder finish reloading his own weapons, and he aimed the revolvers out of his window, quickly sending them back into hiding. One particularly persistent guard backed away, out of Cylinder’s line of sight but still in ours, and continued firing at us.
Noticing the guard’s strategy, Cylinder twisted his wrist, angling one of his revolvers at the ground beneath the man’s car. He fired a shot, and I head a distinct smack as the plastic bullet ricocheted off the asphalt, under the car, and bounced up against the guard’s right leg on the other side. The force of the shot fractured the man’s shin, and he fell to the street, shouting in Russian.
“Let’s go, people!” Cylinder screamed at us, honking the horn of the blue sedan.
I jerked the analyst to his feet, shoving him forward, and Piston came to my aid, grabbing the man’s other arm. Together, we hurriedly dragged him to the blue sedan, and Piston stuffed him into the back seat, climbing in after him. As I rushed to the passenger’s side door and entered the vehicle, Piston produced her 1911, shoving it into the analyst’s ribcage.
“This one shoots regular bullets,” she said to the man. “Don’t try anything, mate.”
The moment I closed the passenger door, Cylinder shifted our sedan into reverse, and our tires squealed as we backed away from the other three cars. The guards hurried back into their vehicles, turning around to chase us, and Cylinder shifted the steering wheel, bouncing us over the highway median and into incoming traffic. He swiveled the wheel again, and we U-turned, merging back into the correct direction and speeding down the road.
I sensed the other cars following us across the median, and turned to Cylinder. “They aren’t giving up.”
He glanced at me. “Better do something about that, then.”
Nodding, I gripped Pulsar tighter, charging it again. I reached out with my free hand, forcing the passenger door open against the high-speed winds, and leaned to the side, twisting to face the approaching vehicles. Rearing back, I flung my hand forward, releasing Pulsar, and it twisted as it streaked through the air like a rocket-powered Frisbee. Unfortunately, my aim was atrocious, and it missed all three cars completely, embedding itself in the asphalt behind them.
“Me cago en ná,” I swore under my breath, extending my hand and summoning Pulsar back to me. As it snapped into my palm, I charged and released it, gesturing more carefully this time. As it spun away from us, I kept my hand outstretched, using small electrical pulses to control its direction.
Much to my satisfaction, the second time was a success, and Pulsar found its way into the front of the closest pursuing vehicle, sending yellow arcs of electricity washing across the hood. The car died, quickly decelerating as the driver pulled it onto the side of the highway. Before it turned out of my view, I reached out for Pulsar again, calling for it.
We crested a hill, and I lost sight of my new weapon as it approached. I nervously waited a moment, and then it reappeared, skidding against the asphalt and kicking up sparks. As it approached, it neared the other two pursuers, and in a moment of inspiration, I jerked my hand to the side, shifting its angle. The blade bumped up against one of the attackers’ remaining cars, shredding the front right tire and sending it skidding out of control into the highway median. Pulsar continued its approach, and within seconds, it found its way back into my palm.
“One left,” I announced. “I’m running low on charges, though.”
“I got you, buddy,” Cylinder responded. “Grab the Pfeifer-Zeliska in the glove compartment.”
“The what?” I asked, opening the compartment in front of my knees. “Oh. Dios mío.”
Reaching down, I hefted a massive, two-foot-long revolver into my arms.
“Christ above, Cylinder,” Piston murmured. “Compensating for something?”
Cylinder frowned, snatching the Pfeifer-Zeliska away from me. “It does the job. Cover your ears.”
Piston, the analyst and I obliged, and Cylinder released the steering wheel, gripping the gigantic gun with both hands as he spun around in his seat. He took aim, the weapon’s barrel pointed perfectly between Piston and the analyst’s heads, and pulled the trigger. The interior of the car filled with a flash and a deafening crack, and a fist-sized hole punched through the rear windshield. Behind us, I sensed the final pursuing vehicle skid to a halt as the Pfeifer-Zeliska’s massive bullet tore into the engine block, demolishing it.
Spinning to take control of the steering wheel again, Cylinder tossed the revolver back to me, and I quietly slipped it into the glove compartment once more. Behind me, the analyst finally spoke up in English, though I had to concentrate to understand him through his thick Russian accent.
“Okay! Okay! Fuck the President, anyway. Russia’s been a hellhole since the Great War of 2022. I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
Piston glanced at him. “Sorry, mate, but we aren’t the ones with the questions. We’re just here to hand you off to bigger fish. Don’t worry; we’ll be at the river soon.”
“But I’ll tell you about the mole!” the analyst insisted, adjusting his coke-bottle glasses.
“The what?” I asked, turning in my seat to face him. “What mole?”
“You have a security breach,” he explained. “High-level. Someone on the inside, working with Black Pharaoh and a new player called Phantom.”
“Phantom?” Cylinder repeated, keeping his eyes on the road. “Never heard of him.”
“Most haven’t,” the analyst agreed. “Not much is known about him or his motives. He-”
I heard something tear through the air above us, and my senses registered someone approaching at high speed even as a heavy thud announced their arrival on the hood of our car.
“Uh oh,” I said, looking up.
A thin, clawed hand covered in yellow feathers punched through the driver’s side window, its fingers wrapping around Cylinder’s neck and pulling him unceremoniously through the new opening. He screamed as he was flung to the side, tumbling into the grassy highway median. The car continued unabated, and I grasped the steering wheel, trying to bring us to a stop.
“No!” Piston yelled at me. “We can’t let anyone take the analyst!”
“What about Cylinder?” I retorted. “We can’t leave him!”
“He’ll be fine,” she answered. “Even if he doesn’t get away, she won’t kill him. S.S. will get him back.”
“She?” I asked. “She who?”
I saw a flash of color, and a short, winged humanoid creature covered in yellow feathers landed in front of our car. The creature’s bulbous black eyes glistened in the sunlight, and its stubby orange beak parted a little, revealing rows of tiny, pointed teeth. It flapped its wings a few times as it dug its claws into the blue sedan’s metal hood, forcing us to a stop in seconds.
The moment we halted, the creature stepped back, and its feathers, beak, eyes, claws, and wings melted inward, morphing it into the shape of a pale-skinned teenage girl. She wore a pink-and-black schoolgirl uniform, along with a short pink cape that stopped at her lower back. Her short pink hair fluttered in the wind, partially obscuring her black domino mask, but I’d seen enough to identify her as The Public Servants’ youngest superhero, Avian.
“Good thing we had a half-day at school today,” she called out, her voice chipper and upbeat. “I might have missed out on all the fun.”
She leaned forward, frowning a little. “We promised the Russian president that his people would have a safe journey home. Step out of the car and return the man you took.”
“I’ll keep her busy,” Piston whispered, reaching for her car door. “Get the analyst to the river.”
“I don’t have all day,” Avian added in a sing-song voice. “I have a Twitch stream this afternoon. Don’t you know that Pokémon Chartreuse came out today?”
Piston shoved her car door open, standing to full height as she leveled her 1911 in Avian’s direction. “Please step away. We’re here to complete a mission. We aren’t bad guys.”
A yellow, baseball-sized object streaked through the air, snatching the pistol from Piston’s grip and carrying it over to Avian. The teenage superhero held out her hand, and the object slowed, revealing her genetically-modified pet canary.
“Thanks, Chirp,” Avian said as the bird dropped Piston’s 1911 into her palm. She gripped the weapon in her hands and twisted for a second before releasing it, revealing nothing left but warped, useless metal. Tossing the demolished gun to the ground, Avian returned her attention to Piston. “Good guys don’t point guns at little girls.”
Well, I silently considered, she does have a point.
Without warning, Piston vaulted over our sedan, drill-kicking Avian in the chest. The girl tumbled backwards across the highway, rolling to a stop as she reached the grassy median. She laid still for a moment, then stirred, climbing to her feet.
“Wow, that was rude,” she called. “Get her, Chirp.”
The tiny canary barreled toward Piston, and before the woman could react, it struck her in the stomach with enough force to knock the wind out of her and slam her into the side of our sedan. The car shook a little, knocking me out of my trance, and I climbed over to the driver’s seat. I glanced back at the analyst, who cowered in his seat.
“Better put on your seat belt,” I advised.
I shoved my foot against the accelerator, and the sedan lurched back onto the highway. We made it about ten feet before we jerked to a halt once more, the tires spinning helplessly as the back of the vehicle was lifted into the air. Turning around, I saw Avian behind us, once more in her bird form, holding us in place with her bare hands.
Before I could react, I heard a gunshot, and something small struck Avian’s head. She released the sedan, which dropped to the asphalt, and stepped back, clearly disoriented. Another gunshot, and this time she dropped to the ground, her feathers and wings melting back into her body as she reverted to her human form. In the rearview mirror, I saw Cylinder on his hands and knees a dozen yards away, Udar revolver aimed in the girl’s direction.
“Uh . . . did you just kill a Public Servant?” I asked my watch.
Cylinder’s voice crackled into my earbud. “Plastic bullets, remember? She’s a tough girl. She’ll be fine. Just get to the river. Piston and I will make our own way back to you.”
Even as he spoke, I saw Avian stir on the ground, Chirp frantically fluttering around her body.
“Adios,” I responded, speeding down the highway as Piston and Cylinder ran in opposite directions away from Avian.
Within minutes, we reached the edge of the river, and I turned off the road, speeding onto the dock. As we approached, I sensed the now-recovered Avian incoming again, her terrifying winged form screaming across the sky. Reaching over to the dashboard, I flipped a switch, and plastic panels slid into place over the windows, sealing us inside. Beneath me, I felt the sedan shifting, and as the analyst behind me cried out, I accelerated, driving into the river.
We struck the water with a sudden jolt, the liquid abyss quickly swallowing us. Overhead, Avian swooped down, diving after us, but I flipped a second switch, and propellers emerged from the rear of the sedan, launching us deeper. She tried to keep up, but her feathers slowed her motions as they absorbed the water. It didn’t take long before she was out of sight, and we were alone.
As I steered the amphibious vehicle through the murk, the analyst leaned forward again. “I absolutely need to tell you about the mole. It’s very important. Almost no one knows this, but if you’re going to keep me safe, you must.”
“Right,” I responded. “The mole.”
“This is serious!” he hissed. “The mole is one of The Public Servants.”
“Wait, really?” I asked, turning to look at him. “Who?”
He sat back in his seat, glancing around nervously.
“In Russia, we call him ‘Gora Smerti.’ Here in New General City, though, he’s known as The Living Mortar.”
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