My head spun as I coughed, expelling brick and plaster dust from my lungs. The copper taste of blood filled my mouth, and I realized that I was face-down in the rubble of Textile’s laboratory. Wet, squishing sounds reached my ears, and I heard unnatural footsteps approach. Groaning, I extended my hand, summoning Pulsar. A series of faint crashes grew louder as the circular blade obliterated everything in its path, tearing a straight line to me.
Suddenly, strong hands grabbed the back of my shirt, lifting me into the air like a paper doll. As I rapidly ascended, I caught a blurry glimpse of blue, scaly, humanoid creatures flooding the safehouse ruins. Their movements were almost primate-like, their unusually long arms covered in flaps that appeared to be some kind of underwater propulsion system.
Fish-men, I thought. This is Angler’s doing.
Just in time, Pulsar arrived. I caught it with my outstretched hand, my body still held aloft by one of the fish-men. Swiping downward, I hacked into the creature’s arm, and it emitted a low, roaring tone, like the call of a distant whale. Clearly in pain, it dropped me, and I crashed to my hands and knees, Pulsar tumbling away. The injured fish-man loomed over me, chest heaving, but before it could strike, the long, silver blade of a katana pierced its neck from behind, the metal dripping blue blood. Clutching for its throat, the creature gurgled, but the blade cut to the side, decapitating it in one quick swipe. As the headless fish-man collapsed, I saw Textile standing over its body, covered in sweat and monster blood.
“You . . . okay?” he asked between shallow breaths.
I nodded, magnetizing Pulsar back to my palm. “Where are the–”
A green blur whipped past me quickly enough to bring tears to my eyes, bisecting two approaching fish-men at the waist in a split-second. Their chopped corpses tumbled into the ruins of the safehouse, spraying blue blood. As the newcomer slowed to a stop, mandibles clicking, I recognized Crucible’s mantis, and remembered that my UV emitter was still active. Crucible’s indigo cloak remained bound to the insect’s neck and back, the comparably tiny hood and cape fluttering almost comically in the wind.
It’s protecting me. The belt works.
“Hey!” I heard Piston yell behind me. “Bugger off!”
I turned in time to see Piston and Cylinder back-to-back, engaging the fish-men in a series of martial arts maneuvers. Despite their fighting prowess, the pair were outnumbered and overpowered, the fish-men’s strength and toughness making them formidable opponents.
“Bug!” I called to Crucible’s mantis. “Take them out.”
The mantis skittered forward, diving into the fray as a sea of razor-sharp appendages. The fish-men surrounding our teammates quickly fell to pieces, freeing the two combatants. Piston and Cylinder made a beeline to the sole standing wall, its exterior specially reinforced to house the armory within. A metal panel slid back, revealing a massive rack of firearms.
“What are you thinking?” I asked as Textile and I joined them, leaving the mantis to tear apart the remaining fish-men.
“Look beyond our house,” Piston commented, gesturing past the rubble. Fish-men roamed the streets as far as I could see, and the city skyline was shrouded in smoke from a dozen fires. Citizens’ distant screams filled the air, chilling me to the bone. “This Angler attack is bigger than us. We need to find out why.”
Suddenly, our watches rang in tandem, flashing “S.S.” on the screen. We traded glances before answering, inserting our earbuds.
“Is everyone okay?” S.S. chimed into our ears, belying an urgency we weren’t used to them expressing. In the background, we could hear a rush of wind, alongside the whistle of their plasma missiles being launched.
“Oh shit, my PlayStation!” Cylinder suddenly gasped, spinning to face the remains of the living room. “I had, like, thirty hours logged on the new Red Dead game.”
“Everyone but Cylinder, apparently,” Piston dryly commented, plucking a large assault rifle off the gun rack. “What’s going on, S.S.?”
“This one’s on me,” S.S. admitted. “They’re after a package I have hidden at a drop site in midtown. I need you to get to it first.”
“S.S. . . .” Textile’s voice dropped an octave. “What’s in the package?”
“Well . . .”
“Sterling Silver!” we all cried simultaneously.
“Okay, okay,” S.S. sighed. “The fish-men have a queen in the Mariana Trench, a creature I believe to be related genetically to Angler. I took some of her eggs when she wasn’t looking.”
“Why?” pressed Piston. “You finally got hungry?”
“After that crab kaiju a few months ago, I wanted to get ahead of Angler,” S.S. explained. “I thought, if I could break down the genetic code in the eggs, I could reverse-engineer Angler’s telepathy and use it to ward off future sea monster attacks.”
“That’s a big move,” Textile said, whistling. “Why aren’t you sending Spectral Man or Avian after it?”
“The others don’t know,” replied S.S. “After the incident with The Living Mortar, I don’t know if anyone else is compromised. You’re still flying mostly under the radar, so I’m inclined to believe The Phantom’s mind-control scheme hasn’t included you. For now, the Public Servants are acting as crowd control and monster slayers.”
“Works for me,” Piston said, sliding a magazine into her rifle as Cylinder retrieved a wooden case from the wall. Behind me, I heard the telltale hiss of Textile donning his hydraulic suit. “Let’s go fishing.”
I turned to the blood-covered mantis, who now watched me intently. “Follow me.”
We crept through the alleyways, trying to maintain a stealthy path as best as four adults and a twelve-foot insect could manage. Piston led the way with the barrel of her assault rifle, and I watched Cylinder load what appeared to be paper cartridges into a pair of flintlock pistols outfitted with revolver chambers.
“What in God’s name are those?” I asked, gesturing to the weapons. “Did you pick them up from an antique store?”
He chuckled, glancing up at me. “You know who Elisha Collier is?”
I shook my head.
“Inventor of the revolver,” he explained, thumbing back both weapons’ hammers. “These are modified replicas of the prototypes.”
“But . . . why?” I queried.
“Firepower.” He grinned, admiring the revolvers. “These bad boys spit out fifty-cal lead balls. They cause some major damage at moderate range without being as unwieldy as the Pfeifer-Zeliska.”
The side door of the building to our left exploded outward, revealing a trio of fish-men. They piled out of the room they’d been ransacking, rushing in our direction. Before anyone else could react, Cylinder hip-fired three shots from his Collier revolvers in quick succession, and the fish-men’s heads burst like dropped watermelons, splashing the brick behind them with blue blood. As the headless corpses tumbled to the alley floor, Cylinder quickly ejected his homemade cartridges, inserting new ones. He saw me watching, and winked.
“See? Told you.”
A shadow loomed at the alley’s exit, and we turned to see another half-dozen creatures scurrying towards us. Piston and Cylinder opened fire with their weapons, cutting down the group before they could close the gap to us, but more crawled over the bodies, emitting their whale-like cries. Textile, the mantis and I rushed into the fray, using our sharp edges to cut through scale and flesh until the cries grew silent.
“That was the easy part, boys,” Piston said, gesturing beyond the alleyway. “We’ve got to cut through Central Park now.”
I readied Pulsar, steeling myself. “You didn’t train us for nothing, did you?”
We hurried into the sunlight, our feet pounding against the pavement as we crossed the street into Central Park. Ahead, fish-men swarmed the area, but to my relief, it seemed that the civilians had fled the park before their arrival. Now, the creatures roamed it like teenage thugs, uprooting trees and destroying park equipment. When we stepped on the grass of the park’s edge, though, the fish-men focused on us, and we pressed ahead, unleashing hell.
The mantis reached the fish-men first, as potent as a bowling ball rushing into a set of pins. Crucible’s indigo cloak fluttered behind it as it tore into the creatures, scattering appendages left and right. I hurled Pulsar at the cluster of creatures who’d formed around, using my bioelectric connection to the blade to convert its forward motion into a horizontal, sweeping one, cutting into the fish-men. Textile and Piston joined me as a blood-covered Pulsar returned to my hand, the former swinging his katana while the latter alternated between rifle rounds and devastating front-kicks. Behind us, Cylinder poured lead into the edges of the group, dropping them before they could reach us.
A fish-man appeared in front of me, swiping its clawed, finned hands, and I ducked below its attack, returning to face-level just long enough to tap its forehead, emitting a quick, precise burst of electricity. The impromptu shock to its frontal lobe instantly knocked it unconscious, sending it spiraling into the grass. Three more creatures approached, but Piston appeared in front of me, side-kicking one of them with enough force to audibly crush its sternum and knock it out of sight. At such close range, she slung her rifle over her shoulder and tightened the strap, opting for her 1911 instead. She fired four rounds into the closest creature’s head while I assaulted the other one, slashing into its throat with Pulsar. Piston and I backed into each other, chests heaving, and nodded before separating once more.
I dodged and parried, swiped and slashed, cutting my way through the fish-men in an attempt to get through the other side. A shadow loomed at my back, and I saw the mantis’s claws strike downward on both sides, impaling the fish-men and flinging them away from me. The creatures changed tactics, piling onto the mantis and weighing it down to minimize its damage. It hissed, twisting back and forth, but it could not free itself of its new passengers.
“Cylinder!” I yelled, calling the marksman’s attention to the insect.
He nodded, weaving expertly through the crowd as if made of wind. Leaping into the air, he planted both feet onto a fish-man’s shoulders, unleashing all ten of his Colliers’ bullets in quick succession into the creatures atop the mantis. They dropped away like flies against a bug zapper, littering the grass around our insectile comrade.
As I ran to assist the mantis, I felt strong, scaly arms arrest my movement, dragging me backwards. I tried to lash out with Pulsar, but their grip was too strong, and soon I found myself airborne. The world around me went silent as water engulfed me, and I cleared my eyes to see myself sinking into the small pond in the middle of Central Park. In the murky gloom, I saw a dozen fish-men propelling towards me like torpedoes, eyes glowing yellow to light their way. I panicked, trying to swim back to the surface, but webbed hands tightly gripped my ankles, dragging me down.
The fish-men drew closer, circling me like sharks, baring long, pointed teeth at me. One drew close enough for me to take a swipe with Pulsar, but the water slowed my attack, giving the creature ample time to avoid it. The sunlight faded as I sank deeper into the pond, and my lungs ached as oxygen became carbon dioxide. My vision began to blur, and in a last-ditch maneuver, I closed my eyes . . .
Gathered my strength . . .
And emitted the most powerful electrical pulse I could muster.
I felt the energy leave my body, and opened my eyes to see yellow arcs snake through the water. As the electricity radiated from me like a shockwave, first amplified by my suit and then conducted by the water, the fish-men around me stiffened like mannequins, shaking violently as God-knows-how-many volts coursed through them. After a few seconds, they fell limp, and I felt the grip on my ankles loosen as their corpses began to float to the pond’s surface.
Relieved, I joined them.
As my head burst from the water, I surveyed Central Park; to my pleasant surprise, I saw that the battle had ended in my absence. The rest of the team looked at me, concern on their faces transforming into relief. I smiled and waved, holstering Pulsar so I could return to shore.
“I know it’s warm today,” Cylinder quipped, crouching to offer me a hand out of the pond, “But maybe we can save the swim until after the mission is over?”
We made our way to the other side of Central Park, navigating down a few more blocks without much incident before arriving at our destination: NGC BAIT & TACKLE. We crept toward the entrance, watching out for fish-men, but the area remained shockingly silent. Piston glanced at us before slinging her rifle onto her back, rearing back to kick the door open.
Suddenly, a black-clad hand punched through the wooden door, striking her in the chest and knocking her onto her back. The rest of the door burst open, and a pale-faced man with beady eyes and thin, red lips stepped into the sunlight, covered in some kind of plated, obsidian armor. He surveyed us with a cold, calculating stare, his eyes drifting up to focus on the mantis.
Black Pharaoh, I realized.
“Looking for something?” he chuckled, watching Piston struggle back to her feet. “You should know, we found those eggs a week ago. As we’ve learned from watching your little team, a bit of covert action goes a long way.”
Textile readied his katana. “Then why all this mess? Why have Angler attack the city?”
Grinning, Black Pharaoh pointed behind him, at the shop sign. “Why, bait, of course. I needed something to lure my property back to me.”
“Property?” My eyes widened, and I glanced back at the mantis. “No. You’re not getting Crucible.”
“Crucible?” Black Pharaoh laughed, his voice raspy and harsh. “You named it! Like a pet. How droll.”
He snapped his fingers, and two young boys in tattered clothes emerged from the shop, standing at attention to his left and right. “She’s nothing special. Subject One, Subject Two, retrieve my property.”
They nodded in tandem. “Yes, my pharaoh.”
Hunching over, their bodies began to contort, the cracking of their bones audible even from a distance. I saw large, black legs protrude from their flesh, and blood pooled around their feet as flesh and muscle and bone shucked away like corn husks. In their place stood a pair of car-sized centipedes, their faceless heads twitching in the mantis’s direction. They hissed, but the mantis returned the gesture, and the three giant insects rushed at each other, biting and clawing and morphing into a cloud of razors.
“Looks like you’ve got them quite under control,” Textile commented, turning his helmeted head back to Black Pharaoh. “Your control.”
The four of us readied our weapons in his direction.
“So, you think if you stop me, you stop my subjects?” the pale-faced man mused. “But, it’s four against one. Hardly a fair fight.”
I felt a familiar presence – the one from the alley on the night of Crucible’s first transformation – appear overhead, and something small and sharp whizzed toward Cylinder’s head.
“Look out!” I cried, hurling Pulsar in front of the marksman. A small crossbow bolt glanced off of the flat of the blade, and I summoned it back into my hand, turning my attention to the roof of the bait-and-tackle shop.
“This should even the odds,” Black Pharaoh commented, gesturing to the man above him.
A masked man in brown armor and a fur coat, with a large spider symbol on his chest.
“Huntsman,” Piston muttered. “You get around, don’t you, mate?”
She swiveled, unslinging her rifle and opening fire on the rooftop, but Huntsman gracefully leapt over her, leaving her bullets to punch through nothingness. A throwing knife emerged from his outstretched hand as he glided through the air, penetrating her rifle’s extractor and jamming the weapon. She swore, unclipping the rifle strap and tossing it to the ground, but then he was upon her, swinging a machete. Her eyes widened as the blade fell toward her face, drawing within inches . . .
Just in time, Textile emerged between them, deflecting the blow with his katana. I rushed to intervene, hurling Pulsar at Huntsman’s head, but he spun in a circle, catching my blade by its grip and using his momentum to send it flying back at me. I yelped, diving to the side, and Pulsar whistled past me, missing me by centimeters.
“Hey!” I heard Cylinder yell, and Huntsman paused, machete raised defensively. The marksman had holstered his Colliers, favoring the pair of Peacemakers I didn’t realize he’d also been carrying. “You’re fast, yeah? Me too. Let’s see who’s faster, the blade or the bullet.”
Cylinder’s hands twitched, but Huntsman’s moved just slightly faster, flicking what appeared to be two long, steel needles through the air. As Cylinder pulled the triggers of his Peacemakers, the needles entered the gun barrels, causing the revolvers to backfire and explode in Cylinder’s hands. He cried out in pain, dropping the ruined pistols and squeezing his bloody fingers into fists.
As I returned to my feet, summoning Pulsar, I glanced around for Black Pharaoh, but he’d disappeared, his bioelectric aura either beyond my reach or masked from me. Behind me, the battle between the mantis and the centipedes continued, the three creatures crashing through a nearby building and leaving a pile of brick and glass in their wake.
Ahead, Piston and Textile rushed Huntsman, the former wielding her 1911 and the latter, his katana. Planting his machete in the ground, Huntsman produced a pair of three-pronged sai knives, using his left hand to ensnare Textile’s sword within the prongs. While Textile struggled to release his blade, Piston drew close, opening fire with her pistol. Without letting go of Textile’s weapon, Huntsman twisted his body, throwing the armored man over his shoulder and onto his back, shifting to dodge Piston’s bullets in the process.
Freed from Textile’s blade, Huntsman dove into Piston, lashing out with the spiked ends of his sais. She leaned back, kicking at his chest simultaneously. Twisting to the side, Huntsman allowed the leg to pass him, altering his attack to bury both sais into her extended thigh. She screamed, and he performed an open-palm strike to her throat, paralyzing her vocal cords.
“Motherfucker,” I swore, shoulder-checking the assassin away from Piston before he could harm her any further. As he staggered back, I swung Pulsar upwards, attempting to cut into him. He retrieved a pair of hatchets from his coat, crossing them in front of him just in time to stop the blow. I tried to channel an electric shock through my blade, but I found myself still depleted from my pulse in the pond.
Huntsman twisted the hatchets at a dizzying speed, catching Pulsar and pulling it from my grasp. As the weapon clattered across the sidewalk, he spun into a back-kick, striking me in the stomach and propelling me onto my back. Completing his spin, he released one of the hatchets, sending it spinning toward my head. I squinted in anticipation, waiting for the pain and the darkness.
A bloody hand appeared in front of me, catching the hatchet out of the air. Cylinder stepped between Huntsman and myself, twirling the hatchet with his left hand while readying his Bowie knife with the other. Tilting his head, Huntsman slowly reached into his cloak, producing a Bowie knife of his own. Cylinder darted at the man, hurling the hatchet, but Huntsman mirrored the action, causing both weapons to collide midair and bounce away from each other.
As the hatchets landed on the ground, Cylinder and Huntsman swung their knives, the metal pinging as the blades glanced off one another. I watched their tête-à-tête in awe; it was as if watching someone fight their shadow, or their mirror’s reflection. Still, I noticed Huntsman slowly gaining the upper hand, his attacks a little stronger, his movements slightly faster. I crawled to my feet, ready to assist, when I saw Textile standing a few yards behind Huntsman, hydraulic bow at the ready.
“Cylinder, duck!” he commanded, releasing the notched bolt.
Cylinder dove to the ground, but Huntsman heard the warning, too, and tilted to the side, somehow catching the bolt out of the air. He allowed the momentum of the bolt to pull him forward, spinning in a circle to crack the projectile across Cylinder’s head like a fire poker. Cylinder’s face turned white, and I saw him collapse limply onto the concrete. Huntsman dropped the bolt, turning to face Textile as the engineer notched another one into his bow.
“Textile, don’t!” I cried.
Huntsman flicked his wrist, this time sending a marble-sized sphere at Textile. When it reached a few inches from the man’s helmet, it detonated into a flash of blinding light, shifting his aim and sending the second bolt into the wall of a nearby building. Huntsman aimed his Bowie knife at Textile, sprinting at him, and the engineer dropped his bow, drawing his katana again . . .
Suddenly, a large, black shape tumbled through the air, colliding with Huntsman and pinning him to the ground. I had barely enough time to register the corpse of one of the centipedes before I saw Crucible’s mantis emerge from a nearby alley, its carapace cracked, blood oozing from torn muscle. The other centipede limped past the mantis, similarly damaged, but the mantis lashed out with its scythe-like arms, decapitating the creature. No longer able to stand, the mantis collapsed, sprawling into the street.
“Hey, bug!” I sprinted to assist the creature, offering it one of Textile’s glucose tablets. “Good work.”
It gently took the tablet from my hand, swallowing it. The carapace began to fall away, and from the melting flesh I saw Crucible on her hands and knees, the indigo cloak still around her neck magnetically buttoning along her thin frame to protect her once more. I offered her a hand, and she weakly smiled at me, but her expression morphed instantly into terror. A shadow loomed behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder in time to see Huntsman inches away, stabbing his machete at Crucible’s head.
A flash of blue obscured my vision, and I heard a quick, wet sound that I couldn’t identify. My eyesight cleared, and I registered Textile crouching between Huntsman and Crucible, the machete buried in the center of his chest and protruding all the way through the back of his armor. As I watched in horror, Textile struck out with his own sword, but even at point-blank range, Huntsman was able to move swiftly enough to only take the blade to his left shoulder.
Thinking quickly, I jumped forward, grabbing Textile’s katana and electrifying it with the little energy I’d recovered during our fight. Yellow sparks traveled along the metal, entering Huntsman’s body and sending him flying backwards, stunned. As Huntsman collapsed in the street, Textile fell onto the ground, blood spurting from his wound. I reached out to remove the machete, but he shook his head, coughing.
“That’ll make it worse,” he weakly explained, removing his helmet. Blood leaked from his mouth, and his eyes seemed unfocused. “This keeps pressure on the injury.”
I nodded, releasing the machete handle and wiping tears from my eyes. I heard footsteps approaching, and turned to see Piston limping our way, her eyes wide.
“Textile? Textile!” she cried, her voice still raspy from Huntsman’s attack to her throat. She activated her watch, calling into it. “S.S., Textile is down. I repeat, he’s dying. We can’t move him without worsening his injuries. We need your help.”
Together, Crucible, Piston and I circled Textile, and Piston took one of his hands in hers.
“Don’t do it,” she said, her voice trembling. “Don’t you die on me.”
He laughed a little, clutching his chest as blood leaked from it. “No promises.”
Crucible leaned over, hugging the man, sobbing into his shoulder. “Don’t go. We need you.”
“She’s right,” I whispered, putting my hand into his empty one. “We can’t do this without you, man.”
My senses registered a change in bioelectric energy, and I looked around to see Huntsman gone. Cylinder, however, remained still on the ground, and I silently prayed that we didn’t have two dying men today.
The sound of twin rockets flared overhead, and we glanced up as S.S. lowered themself to the ground. Their red eyes flickered as they turned to Textile, scanning him.
“He doesn’t have much time,” claimed S.S. “I have to act quickly.”
“What are you going to–” I began to ask, but before I could finish my sentence, the metallic superhero bent down, cradled Textile in their arms, and jettisoned straight up, disappearing into the clouds. Crucible, Piston and I traded confused glances, avoiding looking at the puddle of blood on the sidewalk.
While we waited, we cautiously approached Cylinder, keeping an eye out for Black Pharaoh or Huntsman. It took a moment, but we were able to wake him, and when he heard about Textile, his jaw dropped.
“No. Tell me it isn’t true.”
We avoided eye contact, the street supernaturally silent.
Then, our watches lit up. We glanced down in tandem, reading the caller’s name on the screen.
“Dios mío,” I whispered, and we inserted our earbuds.
“Hello? Is there . . .” Textile’s voice sounded distant, hollow, obscured by static. “Where am I?”
I glanced at Piston, who responded. “We don’t know, mate. Where did S.S. take you?”
“I’m . . . oh God, my body. I can’t feel my body. Why is it so dark?”
A second voice entered the call, this one S.S.’s. “Textile, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”
“What happened to him?” Cylinder asked.
“I knew I couldn’t save him; not all of him, at least,” explained S.S. “So, I did for him what I’ve only ever done one other time.”
“What did you do?” cried Textile. “What did you do?”
Some kind of feedback screeched in my ear, and I winced. Around us, the abandoned cars all came to life, their alarms blaring, their lights flashing out of sync with each other. The display televisions of a nearby electronics shop flickered, producing white static that quickly took on the silhouette of a face.
“Textile?” I squinted at the televisions, stepping closer. “Are you a ghost?”
“In a way,” S.S. responded. “His brain’s been digitized. He’s no longer flesh and blood. He’s silicon now.”
Textile’s anguished cries continued as a chill ran down my spine.
All my life, I’d wanted to be a superhero. Would this eventually be my fate, too?