The night grew quiet by the river docks, the slosh of subtle waves the only sound infiltrating the nearby warehouse. Moonlight drifted through the building’s skylight, bathing dusty wooden boxes in a brilliant white glow. A shadow cast across the ceiling-bound window, projecting an elongated humanoid shape onto the floor within. The skylight suddenly shattered, and a white-cloaked man in aviator goggles streaked downwards like a comet, landing with enough force to fragment the concrete around him.
S.S. was right, I thought, watching from the shadows. The data they pulled from The Living Mortar’s computer provided them enough personal information to predict his next move.
Across from where I hid, I saw Textile rise from behind a pile of boxes in full armor, his injured arm temporarily returned to function by a mechanical exoskeleton laced across it. He silently retrieved his hydraulic bow, notching a bolt onto the string and pulling it back. I nodded at him, and he nodded back through his faceless mask, taking aim at The Living Mortar.
The mass-murdering Public Servant walked over to one of the nearby boxes, ripping it open with his bare hands and rummaging around inside. After a few seconds, he retrieved a large, black duffel bag, slinging it over his shoulder. Glancing up, he bent his knees, preparing to fly again through the demolished skylight.
Textile’s bow released a sharp hiss as he depressed the trigger on the handle, releasing the string. The bolt jettisoned forward, spiraling straight for The Living Mortar’s temple in a silver blur. At the last second, The Living Mortar turned his head in the direction of the noise; the bolt’s sharpened point connected with his forehead . . .
And harmlessly bounced away, clattering across the warehouse floor.
“You thought that would kill me?” the man laughed, adjusting his aviator goggles. “More bullets have flattened against my bare skin than were fired in World War One. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with ten-story monsters made of teeth and spite. You’re just a man with a bow and arrow.”
A small cylinder emerged from the boxes behind him, rolling across the floor and stopping at his feet. He turned to look at it, and I closed my eyes as the flashbang exploded, filling the room with blinding light. He yelped, and the moment the light faded, I opened my eyes again, dashing out from behind the boxes. From two other corners of the warehouse rushed Textile and Piston, the latter unleashing a barrage of shotgun blasts into The Living Mortar’s midsection.
“Are you serious?” he yelled, clearing his eyes as he blindly swung his fists, otherwise unfazed by the ammunition expending into his torso. As he blinked, swiveling his head around, Textile stabbed him in the back with his katana, but the metal blade snapped in half, joining the spent bolt on the floor. I charged Pulsar and launched it at The Living Mortar, but he saw it in time to side-step the attack, and my electrified weapon crashed into the boxes behind him.
The distraction from our attacks was all that Piston needed to get close enough, though. She tossed her shotgun aside, drawing the Udar revolver she’d held onto since our highway kidnapping. Extending her arm, she pulled the trigger, and the handgun emitted a concentrated cloud directly into The Living Mortar’s face. He backed away, covering his mouth, and coughed heavily, trying to purge the vapor from his lungs.
“Too little, too late,” Piston said, holstering the Udar as his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he passed out on the warehouse floor.
Textile sheathed his broken katana, gingerly rubbing against his injured arm. “That sedative won’t last long. We barely got three minutes out of the chloroform putty.”
“Better not waste time, then,” she replied, picking up the shotgun and taking aim.
“Wait, wait, wait,” I cautioned, extended my arm and summoning Pulsar back to my hand. “We have him now. We can just keep him sedated until we imprison him somewhere he can’t escape.”
Piston shook her head. “The risk is too high, mate. He’s too powerful, and he has too much internal knowledge of The Public Servants and other high-ranking political and military leaders. Their families; their weaknesses. Even the program itself – he helped modify it when he joined. He could easily help Black Pharaoh create new, evil SPIs.”
“Assuming he hasn’t already,” Textile added.
Piston took aim again. “Exactly.”
I sighed, backing away. “It’s not my first rodeo killing bad guys out of necessity. But this one was a Public Servant.”
“No,” Textile disagreed, hanging his head. “He just pretended to be one.”
With that, Piston pulled the trigger, discharging a point-blank shotgun blast directly into The Living Mortar’s face.
I looked away, dismayed, but Piston and Textile’s concerned murmurs drew me back to the scene. I saw the smoke clear, revealing the traitorous superhero completely unharmed. Piston put her hands on her hips, and Textile sighed, shaking his head.
“So, he maintains his density shift even when he’s unconscious,” he said.
Piston looked at me, then back at Textile. “You know what that means. We’re moving to Plan B. Tactical retreat.”
We hurried out of the warehouse, and I snatched up The Living Mortar’s mysterious duffel bag along the way. Pushing our way out onto the moonlit dock, I saw our beat-up blue sedan waiting for us at the water’s edge. We quickly climbed inside: Textile in the driver’s seat, Piston in the passenger’s, and myself in the back with the duffel bag. A quick button press, and we were driving forward, the sedan converting to its amphibious form so that we were skimming across the water, boating away from the warehouse where we’d left our antagonist.
“What did he have hidden here?” Textile asked as he steered the vehicle.
I looked down, unzipping the container and spreading it open, exposing stacks of hundred-dollar bills. “Uhhh . . .”
Piston glanced back at the bag. “Holy Ghost, Turbine. That’s, like, a million dollars.”
“More than that,” Textile commented. “A full duffel bag can hold closer to twenty million.”
Piston and I both shot him a glance, and he shrugged. “What? I like to know these things.”
My senses picked up on rapidly approaching bioelectrical activity, and I glanced through the rear windshield. “Looks like he isn’t giving up so easily.”
The Living Mortar soared through the night sky, his white cloak fluttering behind him as he pursued us about twenty feet over the river. He snarled as he drew closer, glaring past his aviator goggles.
“He’s altered his density so he’s light enough to fly,” Textile explained. “That means he isn’t bulletproof anymore.”
Piston nodded, drawing her 1911 and chambering a round.
“That feels like a major weakness,” I said.
“Oh, it’s practically automatic,” Piston added, leaning out of the window and taking aim. “If he’s in danger, his body automatically shifts its density to repel the potential damage, before returning to its original state.”
Realization dawned on me. “Oh, okay. You won’t be able to hurt him, but you’ll slow him down.”
“Precisely,” Piston said, squeezing off a few rounds at the former Public Servant.
The bullets whizzed through the air, and The Living Mortar expertly shifted his flight path, avoiding most of them. One struck his shoulder, though, and he suddenly sank, decelerating and almost striking the river’s surface before he corrected his density and returned to the sky. Piston ducked back into the amphibious sedan, reloading her pistol.
“Almost there,” Textile announced, pointing at a patch of fog hovering above the water in the distance.
Piston opened fire on The Living Mortar again, keeping him at bay as we approached the fog. By the time she emptied her second magazine, we were only yards from the edges of the vapor. She leaned back inside, speaking into her watch.
A single gunshot rang out from the fog, and a small projectile whizzed through the air, striking The Living Mortar in the head. More chloroform putty wrapped around his face, and he clutched at the adhesive chemical, his body switching back into “protective” mode. He dropped from the sky like a stone, splashing into the river and rapidly sinking, practically propelled into the depths by his enhanced mass.
We entered the fog, slowing as we reached the outline of a small boat drifting on the water. I saw a figure wave at us, sensing Cylinder’s familiar presence. We quickly boarded the new vessel, deactivating the vaporizer attached to the boat’s underside, and the fog began to dissipate. Cylinder approached us on the deck, removing his thermal goggles and lowering his giant Pfeifer-Zeliska revolver.
“I gotta say, Textile,” he began, opening the gun’s cylinder, “I wasn’t convinced your ‘putty rounds’ were going to work in this old thing. I suppose I should have more faith in that big brain of yours.”
“Damn right,” Textile retorted, removing his helmet. “Did fire and rescue recover anyone from The Living Mortar’s place?”
“Yeah,” responded Cylinder, sorrow twisting his face. “A valet, a Senator, an actress, and Treble Clef. They’re in the hospital as we speak. S.S. is spinning the story that The Living Mortar didn’t shift his density in time, and he died in the explosion.”
“Treble Clef survived?” I clarified.
Cylinder nodded. “Yes. But about thirty other people didn’t.”
“What a shame,” The Living Mortar’s voice boomed. “I guess I’ll have to finish the job.”
We all turned to see the man gliding down to the boat’s deck, clothes dripping wet, and I felt the air shift as his density rapidly increased. He removed his aviator goggles, wiping the water from his eyes.
“I’d like my money, please,” he continued. “I can take it from you and kill you, or I can kill you and waste my night looking for the bag. Your choice.”
We all assumed combat stances, raising our weapons in his direction.
“I can’t believe this,” he scoffed, shaking his head as he stalked across the boat toward us. “You had to know I’d recover from your tricks and toys too quickly to drown. All of this has been a delay of the inevitable.”
Textile lowered his wakizashi. “Did you touch the bottom?”
The Living Mortar cocked his head. “What?”
“Did you hit the bottom of the river?” Textile repeated.
Frowning, The Living Mortar glanced at the rest of us, then back at the armored engineer. “I don’t see what that has to do with-”
He suddenly doubled over in pain, landing on the deck on his hands and knees. He moaned loudly, interrupted by a stream of vomit that projected from his mouth.
“What . . . what the fuck did you do to me?” he weakly demanded.
He vomited again, collapsing on his side as he began to shiver and writhe in pain.
We all lowered our weapons, and Textile stepped forward. “I’ve thought about you before, you know. Not just you, specifically, but all of The Public Servants. You may be powerful, but you’re still people. And people are fallible. Corruptible. The day of your defeat, your death, could one day be necessary.”
The Living Mortar tried to stand, but he lost his balance before he could even get to his knees, slamming onto the deck again.
“You, particularly, were a challenge,” Textile continued. “But I realized that despite your indestructible nature, you still needed to breathe. Therefore, you must have some kind of functioning circulatory system.”
Moaning, The Living Mortar fell still, his eyelids fluttering.
“Did you know that a rapid change in external pressure can force fatal levels of nitrogen into your bloodstream?” Textile asked. “It’s called decompression sickness, or The Bends. Divers get it sometimes, if they surface too quickly after diving past thirty feet. At the rate of your descent, you likely touched the bottom of the river before you regained control. That’s two hundred feet. And in order to return to us, you had to switch densities. Making you weak. Making you vulnerable to the decompression.”
The Living Mortar didn’t move or respond.
“Is he dead?” Piston asked me.
I closed my eyes, focusing on his bioelectrical signature. “He’s got a heartbeat, but it’s weak.”
“That’s okay,” Textile said. “He doesn’t have to die, necessarily. Common effects of The Bends are also major brain damage and paralysis. We just need him out of the game. Unable to do any more harm.”
I sensed the prone man’s pulse spike, and he began to stir again, stretching out across the boat’s wooden deck. We all backed away slowly, preparing ourselves.
The Living Mortar slowly rose to his feet, his soaking wet cloak hanging awkwardly behind him. He shook his head, as if clearing his thoughts, and smiled sinisterly at us.
“You think you’re so clever,” he snarled at Textile. “But The Public Servants don’t share every detail about themselves to everyone. For example, my density shifting.”
Piston and Cylinder opened fire on the man, but he shrugged off the bullets like they were marshmallows.
“Do you know how often I fracture my own bones when I rapidly shift from lighter to heavier densities?” he asked as their weapons emptied. “It’s excruciating. Unbearable. That power alone would have killed me.”
Textile and I lunged at him with our blades, but he batted us away like rag dolls.
“I’m not just tough,” he said. “I’m resistant. Regenerative. I can heal, dumbass.”
I crawled to my feet, readying Pulsar with another charge.
“Of course, almost no one knows my secret,” The Living Mortar chuckled. “And once I rip you four to pieces and get my money back, it’ll stay that way.”
“You’re awfully money-focused for a government-sponsored national hero,” Cylinder quipped. “You act more like a common thief than a super-powered celebrity.”
A common thief.
The words echoed in my head as I flashed back to my hostage experience during the bank robbery, and I buried my face in my hands as a thought occurred to me.
“Dios mío. I’m such an idiot.”
Piston, Cylinder, Textile, and The Living Mortar all turned to me in unison.
“What is it?” Piston asked.
“He’s not a traitor at all,” I continued. “Not really.”
The Living Mortar scowled as he processed my words, and he lunged at me, murderous intent behind his eyes.
Concentrating, I emitted an electrical pulse.
Yellow sparks showered all around us as The Living Mortar dropped at my feet, hands pressed against his ears. He screamed in agony, and I knelt down, staring at him. Reaching out, I pulled his hands away, plucking two small, metal earpieces from within his ear canals. He collapsed, his screams fading, and murmured to himself. Returning to my feet, I held up my hand, displaying the electrified earpieces.
“Oh my God,” Textile gasped. “I almost killed him.”
Piston and Cylinder rushed to assist as I reached down and helped The Living Mortar stand back up. The man looked at me, doe-eyed, tears forming.
“Thank you,” he whispered, his voice shaking and timid now. “You saved me from hell.”
He leaned against me, his legs wobbling.
“I haven’t really slept in months,” he added. “Not since she took control of me.”
Burying his face in my shoulder, he began to sob.
“The things I’ve done. The people I’ve killed. There’s no forgiveness for me.”
I embraced the man, hugging him tight as I spoke. “Listen, don’t do this to yourself. You had no autonomy. You are not responsible for the things that you did.”
“You said ‘she,’” Cylinder commented. “Who is she?”
The Living Mortar wiped his eyes, pausing for a moment as he tried to piece his memories together.
“Was it a young, blonde woman?” I pressed. “Maybe five-five, in her twenties?”
“I never saw her,” The Living Mortar finally responded. “Just her associates. Black Pharaoh’s goons; the Russians; more mind-controlled civilians. They called her The Phantom.”
I traded glances with the rest of the team.
“If you never saw her,” Piston asked, “how did you know she was a woman?”
“Because her voice has been in my head constantly for the last few months,” he whispered.
I tilted my head curiously. “Her voice? Giving you instructions?”
“No, no,” The Living Mortar shook his head. “The things I did, they just came to me, like impulses. I always knew what to do without hearing explicit directions. No, what I heard was music. Her voice, in song.”
“What song?” Textile asked.
“I don’t properly remember the words,” The Living Mortar admitted. “But I heard it everywhere. It goes like . . .”
He began to hum a tune, and my blood ran cold. He didn’t know the words, but I certainly did.
“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 . . .”
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