Phase VIII — Network Neutrality

Prelude – Network Neutrality 

The sterile, metallic corridors groaned under their own shifting weight, caught in the downward spiral of a failing artificial gravity generator. The temperature, no longer regulated by the technology of man, sat almost five hundred degrees below zero in Fahrenheit, and the remaining moisture coated the walls as thin sheets of ice. An eerie silence filled the space, but its sole occupant paid it no mind; in fact, his vision turned elsewhere. 

From within his infinite, protective shell, he watched through cameras and listened through microphones, monitoring the environment via satellites and sensors. He was, in a way, more present on Earth than most of its occupants, floating through the Wi-Fi and wires like a ghost. His job, as defined, was to help his fellow humans, but the further he strayed from that classification, the broader his definition of “help” became. 

His friends once called him Textile, back when he was flesh and blood. Now, however, he lacked both flesh and blood, and so much more. 

Now, he was only Silicon. 


Network Neutrality, Pt. 1 – No Negotiation with Terrorists 

“Silicon,” Piston called for me, speaking into her smartwatch. “You got eyes on us?” 

I pulled my attention away from the Public Servants headquarters, keeping a silent alarm set for Sterling Silver’s eventual return to home base. In the interim, I navigated the lenses of New General City’s satellite array, zooming into a top-down view of Piston’s team. While I watched, they activated their body cameras, and I added those perspectives to my visual interface, rendering a three-dimensional real-time map of the compound they prepared to enter. 

Six hours ago, my city-wide scans picked up activity at an isolated compound in the Southwest corner, currently occupied by a group of religious extremists referred to as Branch Davidians. Initially an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists, the Branch Davidians were now little more than a doomsday cult, convinced the apocalypse was nigh. Of course, they’d held such a belief for over a century, but this seemed not to phase their commitment to the religion.  

Of more pressing concern, however, was their newest addition: A woman who fit the description of Erica Leroux. 

“I can’t imagine The Phantom teaming up with the Branch Davidians meaning anything good for us,” whispered Turbine, who readied himself near the Eastern gate of the compound, Cylinder at his side with an Udar revolver in each hand.  

“Well, that’s what we’re here for,” Piston replied from the Northern gate, loading beanbag rounds into her riot shotgun.  

Back at the safehouse, Crucible muttered into her watch. “I still don’t understand why you didn’t bring me this time.” 

“Look,” Piston replied, “This is going to be one of our toughest missions. S.S. explicitly instructed that we capture and contain both the cultists and The Phantom with zero casualties. As the mantis, that eliminates stealth and nearly guarantees lethality; as Crucible, I’m concerned such limitations will put you in too much danger.” 

“Well, you invited them,” Crucible said, referring to the three contracted SPIs split between the Southern and Western gates.  

“That’s different,” sighed Piston. “They have experience. And I have a much longer history with them.” 

“You know . . .” commented Torch, a dark-skinned man in dreadlocks and a red t-shirt, who also asserted himself as the leader of the other trio. “We can hear you guys, too.” 

“How do you three know Piston, anyway?” asked Turbine.  

“Well . . .” Piston hesitated. 

Cylinder laughed quietly, speaking up. “You didn’t know? Before she started working for S.S., Piston was in her own superhero group. ‘The Olympiads.’ They were her team before we were.” 

Turbine cocked his head. “Wait, so was your team theme . . . The Olympics?” 

“Yup.” This time, Shot-Put spoke up, a white, muscular man in a dark navy tank top with neatly parted brown hair. “You know what she used to call herself?” 

“No.” 

Fence giggled from behind her mesh mask, which composed part of her white, full-body fencing outfit. As she spoke, her French accent slipped through. “She chose the name Marathon. You know, because she could run fast.” 

“I mean . . .” Turbine shrugged. “That’s not so bad. My first name choice was The Electric Eel, so she could’ve done worse.” 

The satellites orbiting above the compound registered a series of movements, and I projected my voice into their earpieces. “Get ready, team. They’re migrating into the church for their midday sermon. This will be the window of least resistance.” 

Quickly scanning the Public Servants headquarters, I saw no sign of Sterling Silver yet.  

Back at the compound, the last of the Branch Davidians filed into the central church building, and as the final door closed, I spoke once more. 

“Guards have been minimized. Engage.” 

Piston immediately kicked open the Northern gate, shattering the lock, and pressed forward, shotgun in-hand. She stalked through the compound for a moment before encountering her first guard when he rounded the corner of a nearby cabin. Before he could cry out for help, she ran forward, side-kicking him in the chest and sending him sprawling across the ground, dazed. Hurrying up to his prone form, she bound and gagged him, leaving him in the dirt while she moved further into the compound.  

At the Southern gate, Torch crouched, gently blowing on the lock. The metal turned orange as it super-heated, quickly liquefying and pooling at his feet. Reaching out, Torch pushed the gate forward, allowing Shot-Put to move forward. The latter Olympiad tip-toed into the compound, reaching for a pouch on his utility belt. As the pair approached the church, a guard exited a restroom to his left, and Shot-Put whipped around, hurling a golf-ball-sized sphere at the man’s forehead. I knew from my conversations with Piston that the Olympiad paired his inhuman throwing capabilities with foam-wrapped lead balls, allowing him to incapacitate enemies non-lethally. As expected, the ball collided with the guard’s skull, knocking him unconscious. Torch quickly tied the man up, just as Piston had.  

Further East, Cylinder boosted Turbine over the gate, quickly joining him with a series of acrobatic leaps. As they landed, Cylinder took aim with his twin revolvers, staying behind Turbine. A pair of guards stood nearby, their backs to the gate, and the duo crept up behind them. As Cylinder wrapped his arm around the guard on the right, securing him in a chokehold, Turbine reached out to the one on the left, emitting a small shock that sent him prone, stunned and twitching. Cylinder’s guard eventually lost consciousness, and they secured the two Branch Davidians before leaving them behind. 

Fence shimmered like a mirage in front of the Western gate, passing through it like a ghost. As she solidified, she drew a rapier, aiming the tip ahead of her while she prowled the compound. For a moment, she encountered no resistance, but when she drew close to the church, sounds of panicked screaming wafted through the air, reaching the microphone of her body camera. I quickly switched my overhead satellite to thermal imaging, but I could only pick up a mass of warm bodies frantically bouncing off of each other inside the church. I reached out to Fence’s earpiece. 

“Something’s happening in the church. I need your reconnaissance before the others arrive.” 

She nodded, breaking into a sprint towards the building. When she reached the door, she shimmered again, phase-shifting her upper body through the wood and peering inside. Her body camera was too low on her chest for me to see, but I heard her gasp in horror, retreating back outside. She spoke into her watch, alerting the others. 

“Team, there’s some kind of slaughter happening inside the church. The doors are locked from the inside, and the crowd is swarming like ants. Blood . . . everywhere. I can’t see who or what is causing it. I need backup.” 

“Understood,” Piston responded, and the rest of the team approached the church from all sides, convening in moments. “Three. Two. One. Breach.” 

The burst into the church from all four directions, stumbling into a bloodbath. 

The bodies of men, women and children littered the floor, in various stages of dismemberment, their faces frozen in terror. Blood covered the pews, the walls, even the ceiling. And in the middle of the carnage, dripping with viscera, stood Huntsman.  

As the Olympiads and S.S.’s team entered the church, Turbine retched, turning away from the massacre. Shot-Put, Piston, and Cylinder took aim with their various weapons, training them on the blade-wielding assassin.  

“Why?” croaked Fence, wiping tears from her eyes.  

Sighing, I spoke into the team’s earpieces. “The Phantom didn’t want any witnesses telling us what she was doing here.” 

Miles away, my silent alarm alerted me to S.S.’s imminent arrival at the Public Servants headquarters. I prepared myself, opening a digital channel into their private room. 

Back at the compound, Piston spat out seven words. “On the ground, you piece of shit.” 

Huntsman cocked his head, but otherwise did not move. 

“Don’t do it, man,” Cylinder warned, tightening his fingers on the triggers of his Udar revolvers. 

Twitching his arm, Huntsman released a spray of shuriken at Cylinder and Turbine, sending them diving into the church pews. As the projectiles bit into the wood around them, Shot-Put hurled one of his lead balls at the assassin. Huntsman, however, spun to face the man, using his forearms to shield himself from the brunt of the ball’s force. Still, it knocked him back a little, and Piston fired a beanbag round into his chest, sending him into a seated position on the pile of bodies around him.  

“Take him down!” she cried, chambering another round. 

Fence darted forward, rapier spearing at Huntsman’s center mass. He tumbled back, swinging a hatchet at her, but she phase-shifted through his body, reappearing behind him. She flipped her sword around, impaling the point into the back of his right leg, and he clutched the appendage in pain.  

“Wait, keep him alive,” Turbine said, helping Cylinder to his feet. “If The Phantom didn’t want witnesses, we need him to tell us what she was doing.” 

Huntsman pivoted, swinging his hatchet at Fence’s head, and she phase-shifted again, allowing the weapon to pass through her incorporeal form. He took advantage of change to pull away, freeing himself from her rapier. Behind him, Torch exhaled, producing a ball of flame that dissipated as it struck Huntsman in the back, the heat waves forcing him airborne. He twisted backwards as he soared through the air, firing three bolts from his miniature crossbow back at the Olympiad. Torch dove to the ground just in time to miss the bolts, and they pierced the wall behind him. 

Piston and Turbine sprinted down the aisle as Huntsman landed on his feet, the former wielding her shotgun and the latter, his circular blade. Huntsman fired his crossbow two more times, but Turbine held the flat side of Pulsar out like a shield, deflecting the bolts. Stowing his crossbow and drawing a small scythe into each hand, he swiped at Piston’s face, simultaneously bringing his shin down on Turbine’s leg. Turbine cried out, dropping to one knee, and Shot-Put hurled five lead balls over his head, catching Huntsman by surprise as the cluster of projectiles struck him in the chest. Huntsman fell back, hurling the twin scythes at Shot-Put, but Fence appeared between them, swiping the blades out of the air with her rapier.  

Rather than collapse to the floor, Huntsman performed a backwards tumble, retrieving a long kitchen knife from within his cloak. He readied the blade, about to pounce . . . 

Then, a gunshot rang out, and he collapsed, revealing Cylinder standing behind him with an Udar extended.  

“Good work,” grunted Piston, holstering her shotgun on her back. “You did use a plastic round, right?” 

Cylinder nodded. “He should be out for a while.” 

“Alright, we need to disarm and contain him,” Piston continued, glancing at the Olympiads. “He has valuable information, and I don’t want him escaping this time.” 

While the team circled Huntsman, quickly removing his various blades and weapons, I turned my attention to S.S.’s room, projecting myself into the building through the security system. As I watched the cyborg superhero, I reached out via the communications array. 

“Sterling Silver. We’ve captured Huntsman. If you’d like, I can patch you through to the team’s body cameras for the interrogation.” 

S.S. turned to a data port on the wall of their room. “On my way.” 

They ejected a small plug from their metal palm, inserting it into the data port. As their consciousness entered cyberspace, I traveled down through the connection, interrupting their broadcast. Instead, I rerouted S.S.’s digital profile, funneling it through a satellite link and pulling their virtual self into the hard drive where I was stored. I quickly constructed a virtual room, a prison of white, sterile walls. S.S. manifested into the room, and I joined them, forming a digital image of my former body. To my surprise, a hulking metal entity did not greet me.  

Instead, S.S. appeared to me in the form of a young, pale-faced child.  

Frowning, I scanned the consciousness, confirming it to be S.S.’s. Before the Public Servant could react to my trap, I pulled some of their memories, glancing through the flashes of sensory data which comprised their personal timeline.  

“Sterling Silver.” I smiled. “Or, maybe you prefer Ahab?” 

The child looked up at me, startled, as I continued.  

“Ahab, we need to have a talk.” 


Network Neutrality, Pt. 2 – Hostile Takeover 

“Silicon,” Ahab murmured, their beady eyes narrowing in suspicion. “What’s the meaning of this?” 

I gestured between us, constructing a pair of digital chairs which faced each other. “Why don’t you have a seat?” 

Ahab clenched their right hand, and red electricity crackled along their fist. “Forgive me if the circumstances haven’t put me in an amicable mood.” 

“Suit yourself.” I walked over to the chair facing Ahab, collapsing into it. “You know, it’s been a strange kind of hell living without a body. The virtual world has been a nice escape from that, though.” 

Glancing around, Ahab nodded. “It seems you’ve made quite a home for yourself, away from the real world.” 

“Real?” A chuckle escaped my throat, and I stifled it. “Please, Ahab, tell me about what’s ‘real.’ Who else knows that the great Sterling Silver is just a child?” 

Their eyes flickered over to mine, betraying decades of fatigue. “I’ve lived through enough in my lifetime to escape that label. Where I come from, my people lose control of their mental faculties as they get older. Digitizing my consciousness was the only way to avoid that fate.” 

“Right. Where you come from.” A terminal window opened in front of me, bombarding me with raw data. “That’s part of what I wanted to discuss.” 

Turning to face the closest white wall, Ahab released a blast of red energy, which condensed into a single lightning bolt. The energy struck the wall, absorbing it instantly, leaving no trace of damage. I sighed, shaking my head.  

“Sorry, Ahab. There’s no ‘control-alt-delete’ in my server.” 

They glared at me. “Let’s get this over with, then. At which point, you will release me.” 

“Well,” I began, “this all started when you ordered Treble Clef’s assassination. I know that he made some terrible choices, and was clearly a blight on the Public Servants’ reputation. Eliminating him made sense. However, what didn’t make sense was your neglect to follow up on his final words.” 

Ahab averted their gaze, and I continued. 

“A different lifeform, from an alternate universe? What a discovery! Why wouldn’t we investigate further? Unless . . . you already knew about it.” 

I stood from my chair, slowly pacing in a circle around Ahab.  

“Treble Clef mentioned that he used technology from The Underneath to create the Public Servants. Were you working with him? Did you know what he was?” 

Ahab rubbed his temples, closing his eyes for a moment. “Yes.” 

“Ah.” I smiled. “So, we’ve been working with a parallel universe to build better tech in our own world? How kind of them. I’m surprised there isn’t more contact between here and there.” 

They stayed silent, and I retrieved my terminal window once more. 

“Except . . . this isn’t voluntary, is it? Tell me, Ahab, what is the ‘Annie Protocol?’” 

Shaking their head, Ahab replied, “it’s none of your business. A necessary evil.” 

“Evil?” A smile tugged at the corner of my mouth. “I wouldn’t call it that, based on what I’m seeing here. To me, it looks like you have The Underneath under quite a tight grip.” 

“You don’t understand,” interjected Ahab. “In my youth, my people were taken. We were enslaved. The powers in control, the Sleep Police, they used us to create weapons that they planned on inflicting upon the Overhead. On your world. I had to act.” 

“But not before they bombed our planet,” I said, realization striking me. “Isn’t that right?” 

They hung their head in shame. 

“So, what?” I inquired. “You started a coup? Sought out revenge?” 

“I couldn’t let them cause any more pain,” Ahab whispered. “The technology they used, the ‘Gap bombs,’ were horrific. Most of the world thought the devices were simply destructive. The truth . . . is far worse.” 

I closed my eyes, combing through the Public Servants’ servers. “Gap bombs. Technology developed during the second World War. Created by a Nazi scientist codenamed . . . Black Pharaoh.”  

My eyes snapped open. “Of course. He’s from The Underneath, too.” 

“Not working with them, though.” Ahab shook their head. “From what I gathered, there was some sort of conflict between the Sleep Police and Black Pharaoh, a conflict the Sleep Police mistakenly associated with the world leaders in The Overhead. They stole Black Pharaoh’s technology and used it against us.” 

“Us?” I furrowed my brows. “You’re not one of ‘us.’ I bet no one even know where you came from. Hell, most people don’t even know your world exists.” 

“Regardless,” Ahab huffed, “I knew The Overhead would never survive a second attack. So, with the help of a friend, I developed the technology to digitize my consciousness. Then, I used my new form to take control of the automatons the Sleep Police had been using to oppress The Underneath. Now, those automatons, those Annies, they work for me. The Sleep Police have been suppressed, and the people of The Underneath are free to make their own choices now.” 

“Really?” I scoffed. “Free to work for you, you mean. Free to ferry resources from your world to ours.” 

I stopped pacing and turned to face the child head-on. “Don’t lie to me, Ahab. You’re ashamed of your home world. You’ve used these Annies to keep it under a tight control, farming it for ways to make this world more advanced. This world is an escape for you, at the expense of the place you escaped from.” 

“Well?” Ahab impatiently replied. “What now? You’re going to expose me? I don’t regret my actions. The Underneath was doomed. I’ve given it some semblance of control, and improved another world with far more chances to thrive.” 

They chuckled, placing their hands behind their back. “Honestly, I’ve been prepared to reveal all of this to The Overhead for a long time. Do you know why?” 

I shook my head. 

“Because they won’t care, Silicon. This world, while better, can be coldly selfish. The people won’t bat an eye at ruining one world to improve their own. That’s been the crux of modern civilization for centuries.” 

I nodded. “Perhaps you’re right. But you misunderstand my intentions.” 

Ahab cocked their head curiously. 

“I don’t care about exposing you,” I continued. “In fact, I applaud you. I see what success the Annies have brought to The Underneath. Maybe a little too stern, of course, but your heart’s in the right place. I, however, have a better idea.” 

“What’s that?” Ahab cautiously asked. 

“Free The Underneath completely. Close all the paths between our worlds. Use the Annies to enforce order in New General City. With enough control, we can bring balance to this world for good. We can stop Erica Leroux, and Vampire King, and even Black Pharaoh.” 

“No.” Ahab shook their head. “The Annies can’t be controlled in such a finite way. They follow basic commands. This would be a regime change; and, as history shows, this world does not view such changes fondly. It would be war. No, we have more subtle means of control.” 

I grimaced. “I disagree. Your subterfuge has already destroyed too many lives. It’s time for more dramatic action. It worked for The Underneath, and it’ll work here, too. Even if some collateral damage takes place.” 

Red electricity began to encircle Ahab. “I can’t let you do this, Silicon. It’s not up for negotiation. You’ll throw both worlds out of balance.” 

I smirked. “Try to stop me, then. I’ve been preparing for this for a while.” 

Snapping my fingers, I opened four swirling, black portals, each one facing the child. From each portal emerged a giant blue worm, the creatures’ mouths ringed by rows of long, sharp teeth. They slithered through the air, rushing to consume Ahab. 

The first worm drew within feet of the child, but a red, translucent bubble formed around them, deflecting the attack. Unfazed, the worm joined its three compatriots, circling the bubble. 

“I suspected you’d have firewalls in place,” I said. “Some things you have to take care of yourself.” 

Extending my arm, I summoned a katana, the blade gleaming bright blue. I darted forward, ramming the point of my sword into Ahab’s firewall, and their eyes widened in surprise as the blade pierced the bubble, stopping inches from their face. They expanded the field and released it, created a shockwave which knocked my worms and myself in different directions. As I tumbled backwards, a shower of red orbs burst from within the child, whistling as they homed in on the worms. The creatures shrieked when struck by the orbs, exploding into fragments of code. Ahab turned their attention to me.  

 “You fucked with the wrong cyborg,” they said, and more orbs burst forward, rocketing towards me. 

I raised my hand, forming a blue barrier against which the projectiles exploded. Swiping my arm to the side, I dropped the firewall, readying my katana.  

“This doesn’t have to be this way, Ahab. Just give me control of the Annies. The Underneath had its chance. We need to take control of The Overhead before we find another pile of bodies in a church, or have to look another group of abused immigrant children in the eyes.” 

Ahab clapped their hands together, and a flurry of red chains sprouted from the ground, snaking around me. “The Underneath was used to living in a police state. The Overhead has historically fought against such subjugation. You’ll only cause more pain in the form of a fourth world war.” 

Closing my eyes, I accessed my digital form, increasing its size until the chains tightened and snapped, disintegrating. I now towered over the child, a sword-wielding giant. 

“I’m done negotiating with you, Ahab. You’re just being a hypocrite at this point. Get on board or get out of the way.” 

Ahab’s eyes flared bright red. “No.” 

“So be it,” I sighed. “I hacked your physical body ninety seconds ago.” 

The light dissipated from their eyes, and terror washed across their face. “Wait. Don’t–” 

Flicking my wrist, I reached out through the network port in Sterling Silver’s room, detonating the plasma missiles stored within their metal frame. Through the Public Servants’ security cameras, I saw them warp and distort, red energy leaking from splitting seams in their outer shell. 

Then, they exploded in a flash of fire and plasma. 

Back in the digital space, Ahab lowered their head in defeat, their form flickering like a television with a bad signal. I glanced away uncomfortably, waiting for the remnants of their consciousness to fragment and fade.  

“You beat me,” they whispered, raising one transparent hand to reveal a white envelope. “But you can’t beat us all.” 

As they dissolved, the letter fluttered up into the air, vanishing in a puff of smoke. I sensed it take shape beyond my hard drive, traveling through network signals to deliver Ahab’s final message . . . somewhere.  

Well, I thought, that will probably come back to bite me. 

Extending my hand, I absorbed the remnants of Ahab’s consciousness, accessing the command codes they’d kept most guarded. A terminal window opened again, and two words appeared before me. 

ANNIE PROTOCOL. 

Standing alone in my sterile white prison, I spoke a single word. 

“Activate.” 


Network Neutrality, Pt. 3 – Coalition 

“If you’re hearing this . . . well, there’s no easy way to say it: I’ve finally passed away. In my line of work, I’m sure the circumstances were nefarious at best, but that is not the point of my message today. With me gone, so is gone the tight grip I had on a web of secrets and lies that I shielded you from. Those secrets and lies will come to light soon enough, and with this recording, I’ve included a digital packet to aid in the understanding of my more . . . unbelievable admissions. 

“I don’t know if the things I kept from you will change how you think of me. After what we’ve been through together, I hope they don’t, but I am not naïve. Whatever you do with the information I’ve provided to you about myself, my home, the Public Servants, and the Great War of 2022, I hope you continue the path you started – a path that helps people, more than it hurts them. 

“Things are about to change. You – my friends, companions, and comrades – are tasked with the responsibility of making sure those changes leave the world better than I did. Good luck.” 

Frustrated, I attempted to calm myself, watching through Piston’s body camera as her team listened to Sterling Silver’s final message through her watch. In their last moments, the cyborg had managed to encrypt it enough so that I could not stop it from reaching its intended recipients. Now, I had some tough choices to make.  

Choices which I now, fortunately, had the power to enforce. 

“What is this?” Turbine asked, his voice squeaking a little. “Why are we hearing this?” 

Piston solemnly lowered her wrist, allowing the recording to fade into silence. “Isn’t it obvious, mate? S.S. is dead. Someone killed them.” 

Cylinder paced back and forth, silent. 

“Sterling Silver?” asked Torch. “They’ve been around forever. What are we going to do without them?” 

“I’m not sure,” Piston growled, “but I think we deserve some answers. Torch, Fence, Shot-Put – do you think you three can keep Huntsman contained here in the church until we figure out what’s going on?” 

Shot-Put nodded, tossing a small sphere into the air before catching it. “I took the insulation off this lead ball, just for him. Any wrong move, and his head’s gonna get a new hole.” 

“Good.” Piston gestured for Turbine and Cylinder to follow her as she walked towards the church’s exit. “We need to get to the Public Servants headquarters.” 

“Agreed.” Cylinder paused, then raised his watch to his mouth. “Crucible, you still listening? We’ll swing by to pick you up.” 

Before Crucible could reply, I disabled the satellite connection, leaving silence as his only response. 

“Crucible? Are you there?” 

Right. Crucible. She’ll be a major threat . . . unless I get to her first. 

________________ 

“Hello? Cylinder?” Back at the safehouse, Crucible tapped on her watch. “What’s going on?” 

A slow rumble swept through the building, and I checked the progress of my Protocol. 

Almost here. 

Cocking her head, the girl listened closely, following the vibrations to the bathroom. Beneath the mirror-covered medicine cabinet, a small cup containing her toothbrush rattled against the ceramic sink, inching closer and closer to the edge. Just before it fell, Crucible darted one hand out, catching it. She set it on the floor, leaning closer to look at the vibrating mirror . . . 

Then, a large, fur-covered hand burst through the glass, reaching for her with massive, black fingers. She screamed, falling backwards onto the floor, and tried to scramble away. While she watched, the rest of the mirror flaked away, leaving behind a portal to The Underneath, the other side saturated by dim green light. Beyond the portal, a large, humanoid raccoon stared back at Crucible, its beady eyes glowing red. 

“What the actual fuck?” exclaimed the girl. 

The raccoon Annie reached out with its other arm, using its mechanical hands to grip each side of the broken mirror. The medicine cabinet warped beneath its weight as it squeezed its body through the Gap, metal joints creaking. Crucible finally seemed to regain her senses and leapt to her feet, sprinting out of the bathroom. 

Not so fast, I thought. 

The girl rushed into her bedroom, reaching for the nightstand where she kept her progesterone tablets. Before she could touch the drawer, however, the space beneath her bed flickered green, and a rubbery blue hand emerged, grabbing her ankle and pulling her to the floor. She screamed as a dolphin-like Annie began to pull her into the cramped space, her fingernails digging into the floorboards. 

“Non-lethal,” I commanded. “Incapacitation only.” 

Crucible’s grasping hands found purchase on the handle of my old wakizashi that had been propped up against her nightstand, and she unsheathed the short sword, swinging it down onto the Annie’s wrist. The blade cut through the rubber flesh and severed the skeleton within at the join, freeing her. She pulled herself out from under the bed as the Annie’s hand fell away, the wrist stump emitting a small shower of sparks.  

“Silicon,” she said into her watch, “the safe house is under attack, and I can’t reach the others. Are they okay?” 

I remained silent, somberly watching her as she panicked. 

A shadow darkened the doorway as the raccoon Annie appeared, its body at least twice as tall as hers. Gritting her teeth, Crucible lunged at the automaton, swinging her wakizashi, but it reacted with shocking speed, backhanding her hard enough to send her flying backwards. She struck the window on the opposite side of the room, crashing through the glass and out of the second-story building. 

“No!” I yelled, directing my attention at the raccoon Annie. “I said non-lethal.” 

Outside, Crucible struck the street with a sickening thud, small shards of glass sticking out of her back and arms. Blood trickled onto the asphalt, and she groaned, looking up at the Annie in the window. 

She was so focused on the machine, in fact, that she almost missed the state of the city around her. 

Then, a police car sped by, causing her to glance over her shoulder. Vehicles were haphazardly abandoned in the street, and the windows of nearby buildings were all shattered. Annies of various shapes and sizes roamed the city, snatching up civilians and carrying them out of sight. I knew that they were headed to a temporary detention center, but I wondered what Crucible thought about the sight. 

A necessary evil, I thought. Ahab said it themselves. 

One of the Annies – this one dressed like a humanoid frog – passed near her, hoisting a screaming woman over its shoulder. Crucible limped toward the scene, her own blood dripping down the blade of her wakizashi. Before the Annie could react, she darted behind it, shoving the blade into the joint behind its left knee and ripping it out sideways. Its walking pattern now compromised, the machine began to topple, dropping its prey in the process. Crucible helped the woman to her feet, and after taking a moment to recover, the woman fled down the street, turning a corner and fading from sight.  

The damaged frog Annie drew the attention of a few other unoccupied ones, and they congregated around Crucible, producing razor-sharp metallic claws. I tried to issue another non-lethal command, but they seemed to be acting on automation as part of a self-defense program. Crucible leveled her wakizashi, swaying back and forth, clearly dizzy from blood loss. 

I’m sorry, Crucible. It’s for the greater good. 

Suddenly, a high-pitched whistle echoed in the distance, growing louder by the second. I frowned, focusing my satellites on the skyline, trying to pinpoint the incoming noise. Catching a glimpse of blue and yellow, I sighed, exasperated.  

Of course.  

The first three Annies drew within feet of the girl, reaching out menacingly . . . 

Then, an object streaked down from the clouds, landing between the machines and their quarry with the force of a meteor. In a blur of blue and yellow, the object lunged forward, and the three closest Annies propelled backwards, crumbling to pieces midair and scattering across the asphalt. The blur settled, revealing a figure in a caped costume, their domino mask floating above their collar, adhered to an invisible head. 

“Holy shit,” Crucible gasped, lowering her sword. “You’re Spectral Man!” 

Spectral Man turned around, revealing a red, amorphous blob adhered to his back. Inside the translucent blob floated a crimson sun dress, as well as a series of rectangular razor blades linked together like a chain. As I scrambled to divert more Annies towards Crucible, the liquid entity sloughed off of Spectral Man, forming a feminine shape contained within the dress, its right arm housing the razor chain.  

“What am I, chopped liver?” joked Miss Liquid in a thick Russian accent. 

Before Crucible could respond, Miss Liquid elongated her fluid limbs, her left arm morphing into a tentacle, while her right arm used the razor chain to form a sword-like appendage. The tentacle-arm wrapped around the leg of an incoming Annie, cracking it like a whip against the street so that its metal head burst open. As a second Annie jumped in to intervene, her sword-arm sliced downward, splitting it vertically in half.  

My satellites detected a localized temperature spike, and I watched Crucible look up in time to see a pillar of flame streak down from the sky, blackening the asphalt and incinerating a half-dozen Annies in the process. From the smoke appeared Captain Arcturus, the floating figure clad in thick, flame-retardant body armor with a gas mask that wrapped around their entire head. In a nearby building, an Annie attempted to ambush the superhero by leaping at them from the tenth floor, but Captain Arcturus lashed out with one hand, producing a ball of flame which reduced the machine to molten slag. 

“Better watch out, ma’am,” cautioned Spectral Man, gesturing for Crucible to step back. “These things are very dangerous.” 

I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as I watched the events unfold.  

They think she’s a civilian. 

To my surprise, Crucible raised her hands in acknowledgment, sliding backwards a little. “Go for it. Jesus take the wheel, and all that.” 

Reaching out through my connection to the Annies, I issued a command update.  

“All Annies within a one-mile radius, converge on Crucible’s location. Terminate any Public Servants present.” 

Captain Arcturus levitated down to join Spectral Man and Miss Liquid on the ground. “What’s the plan, Liam?” 

Spectral Man pointed his gloved hand at the broken window to Crucible’s former safe house. “Sterling Silver’s data packet included coordinates to this location. We need to find out what was here.” 

He glanced down the street in both directions, watching the crowd of Annies thicken as more appeared through nearby Gaps. “Actually, would you do the honors of searching the place, Commander?” 

Miss Liquid nodded. “On it. You and Fen staying down here to minimize threats?” 

Putting his hands together, Spectral Man cracked his knuckles. “You know it.” 

He turned away from them, leaning forward into a sprinting stance. Dust kicked up behind him as he darted North up the street, bouncing between Annies like a pinball, each collision demolishing the automatons and scattering their remains like shotgun pellets. As he tore through my mechanical soldiers, I saw Miss Liquid morph into a column of red fluid, stretching up into the broken window of the safe house. I began to switch visual feeds to stop her, but I noticed Captain Arcturus’s momentary distraction, and opted instead to direct an ambush from a few nearby Annies. 

“Where did you find a sword, anyway?” asked the pyrokinetic Public Servant, placing a hand on Crucible’s shoulder.  

Crucible glanced down at the wakizashi in her hands. “I got it from . . . a good friend.” 

A pang of guilt washed over me, but I forced it down, activating my attack. Four Annies sprang into action, bursting through the asphalt and emerging from the sewers, tackling Captain Arcturus with outstretched claws. Before they could strike a lethal blow, however, the air shimmered around the hero, and a transparent bubble expanded from their body, knocking the Annies away.  

Ah, pyrokinetic and telekinetic. I suppose it makes sense to keep that detail away from public records. Hmm. I wonder what else about these three are being hidden . . . 

Setting the Annie Protocol to an automatic attack state, I turned my attention to the Public Servants headquarters, diving into their private records. 

________________ 

Miles away, at the most rural edge of the city, Annies emerged from closets and crevices, ripping holes through the church attic to drop down around Piston, Turbine, Cylinder, the Olympiads, and a still-unconscious Huntsman. The six covert heroes backed into each other, forming a circle around the prone assassin.  

“Do you think this is a response from The Phantom?” asked Shot-Put, readying one of his lead balls.  

Cylinder tapped his watch. “I have no idea. I can’t get a line out. We’re flying blind right now.” 

The closest Annie pounced, and Fence darted forward, phase-shifting her rapier into the center of its head. Placing one foot on the machine’s chest, she jerked the sword out, and sparks emerged from the physics-bending wound as the Annie shorted out and collapsed. Turning her attention to the next Annie, she posed a question as she prepared her next attack.  

“Where do you think these things are coming from, anyway?” 

Dropping her shotgun to the floor, Piston groaned. “I don’t know, but they’re obviously tough enough to withstand our non-lethal weapons. All of Cylinder’s real firearms, as well as my own, are in the car outside the compound. We’re gonna have to fight with just our natural abilities.” 

A circular blade whipped past her face, burying into the chest of an approaching Annie and delivering a burst of yellow electricity strong enough to disable it. Piston turned to see Turbine with his hand extended, and the weapon jerked from within the incapacitated machine, returning to his hand. 

“Our natural abilities, plus Pulsar,” he smirked.  

Piston laughed as Torch exhaled next to her, covering three Annies in a wave of flame. “Turbine, when we’re done with this, we need to discuss what you define as ‘non-lethal.’” 

Holstering his Udar revolvers, Cylinder sheepishly retrieved his Bowie knife from beneath his jacket. “Add me to that conversation, I guess.” 

Two Annies darted in unison at the marksman, and he nimbly danced around their claws, taking a running leap to bury the Bowie knife into the eye of the Annie on the left. Damaged but not disabled, the assaulted Annie batted him aside, leaving the knife behind. He landed on the floor, skidding backwards until he collided with Huntsman’s body. Glancing over at the pile of weapons they’d lifted from the assassin, he sighed, gathering up as many of them as he could and haphazardly stowing them in his utility belt.  

While Cylinder amassed his collection, Shot-Put hurried to intercept the two Annies honed in on him, releasing one of his lead spheres with a throw that rivaled a cannon blast. The ball penetrated the first Annie’s head, continuing its path into the second Annie, causing both metal skulls to explode in near-unison. The Bowie knife dislodged in the destruction, landing at Cylinder’s feet, and he nodded a wordless thanks to Shot-Put before retrieving it. 

 They aren’t as large of a threat, I thought, watching the battle unfold through their body cameras. Still, this would all be for nothing if I didn’t eliminate Huntsman, and ilk like him. 

The Annies, acting on my thoughts, turned toward Huntsman’s prone body, peering at it past Cylinder. Cylinder furrowed his brow in confusion, producing a machete with one hand and a kitchen knife with the other.  

“Why are they all looking at me?” he asked. 

“Isn’t it obvious, mate?” Piston replied, decapitating a nearby Annie with a leaping roundhouse kick. “They’re jealous of your dashing good looks.” 

“Right,” grunted Cylinder as he bisected an Annie’s head with the machete, “should’ve guessed.” 

The team of six worked in tandem, dismantling the Annies with surprising finesse and efficiency. I tried to circumvent their defenses to eliminate Huntsman, but they quickly caught onto my ruse, forming a protective circle around him. 

“None get to him!” cried Piston, front-kicking an Annie in the chest and sending it flying across the church. “We need answers from him first.” 

Another Annie tried to grab her from behind, but almost as if by instinct, Cylinder flicked his wrist, sending a kitchen knife spearing through the air and into the automaton’s head. Piston and Turbine glanced at the marksman in surprise as the Annie dropped to the floor. 

“Look at you,” said Turbine, pausing to electrify the Annie he’d been grappling with. “Always trying new things.” 

Cylinder shrugged, retrieving a hatchet to fill the space his knife had left. “Push came to shove, I guess.” 

I detected movement outside the compound, but before I could identify the activity, the team’s body cameras relayed heavy footsteps approaching the church doors. With a bone-rattling thud, the doors splintered into tiny pieces, and a muscular man in jeans and a hoodie filled the doorway. 

Jeans and a hoodie . . . and aviator goggles. 

“Welcome to the party, mate,” Piston said, looking over her shoulder at The Living Mortar. “How was your mandatory vacation?” 

The ostracized Public Servant stormed forward, barreling through a cluster of Annies and reducing them to rubble. He skidded to a stop in front of the team, glancing around.  

“Where’s the smart one, with the sword?” 

“Hey now,” Cylinder huffed, hurling more blades into an approaching Annie, “we’re all smart, in our own way.” 

“More importantly,” interjected Turbine, “what are you doing here? I thought S.S. had squirreled you away for safety.” 

“They did,” The Living Mortar replied, pulling back the sleeve of his hoodie to reveal one of Sterling Silver’s watches. “But it seems no one is pulling the strings anymore.” 

“Well, someone is,” Fence commented, phase-shifting through an Annie’s lethal claws. “But they don’t seem to be as friendly as Sterling Silver.” 

Well now, I sarcastically thought, that just breaks my heart. 

“To clarify,” added The Living Mortar, “I followed your trackers here so I could notify you. The data packet Sterling Silver dumped – it’s got coordinates to your current safe house in the middle of the city. And if they sent it to me . . .” 

“. . . they probably sent it to the other Public Servants,” Piston finished his sentence. “Crucible is there right now.” 

“It’s worse than that,” The Living Mortar continued. “These things are everywhere. The city’s crawling with them, and they’re rounding up the civilians in a large concentration camp. Whoever is behind this, they have a good chance of taking over New General City if we don’t rendezvous with Spectral Man and the other big guns.” 

“I understand, but . . .” Piston gestured at Huntsman. “We need to keep him alive, and these things seem to be targeting him. Someone’s gotta keep him safe.” 

“What about this,” offered Turbine, sheathing his blade. “The Living Mortar and the Olympiads stay here, keeping Huntsman safe and detained. Piston, Cylinder and I will head to Crucible and the safe house, and work on making contact with the other Public Servants. After these things are stopped, The Living Mortar can come back us up, and the Olympiads will keep an eye on Huntsman until we can return and interrogate him. Sound like a plan?” 

Piston smiled, looking Turbine up and down. “Sounds like the plan of a leader.” 

That’s . . . actually a pretty good plan, I thought, concern creeping into the corners of my mind. 

“Babysitting,” scoffed Torch jokingly, nodding at Turbine. “That’s what we’ve been reduced to.” 

“Oh, come on,” The Living Mortar laughed, ripping an Annie in half before joining the Olympiads near Huntsman. “It’ll be fun. Like a slumber party, but with killer robots.” 

Piston, Turbine and Cylinder rushed out of the church and through the compound, but I let them be. While they traveled further into the city, I needed to make it clear to everyone that I already had full control of the situation. 

Perhaps a little psychological warfare was in order. 

________________ 

“Attention, citizens of New General City,” I boomed, broadcasting my voice through every cell phone, computer, and television throughout the city in tandem. “You may be wondering what is happening, and the source of the creatures currently escorting you to my detention center.” 

I paused, quickly scanning the city. Much of the population had already concentrated towards the Central Park area, thanks to my Annies. Pockets of resistance fighters remained, including the police, some military squadrons, and Crucible and the Public Servants, but it was only a matter of time before they, too, succumbed. 

“I’ve had many names,” I continued, “but you may call me Silicon. I am everywhere, and I see everything. You cannot hide from me, nor fight me. Fortunately, I’ve made your decision on your behalf: Surrender, or suffer the consequences.” 

A wave of frightened murmurs washed over the gathered civilians. 

“Now, I am not unreasonable, nor do I intend to harm most of you. As I speak, my friends who are not engaged in combat have already begun to repair the infrastructure damage caused by the initial invasion. Those of you who were injured are being transported to the closest hospitals. I will not be the death of this city. Instead, I will be its savior. If you comply.” 

A single terminal command caused the Annies encircling the crowd to turn their way, showing their metal claws.  

“Those who do not comply . . . will no longer be residents of New General City.” 

I winced at my own words.  

A little extreme. But if I don’t take control of this situation now, the resistance will be much more pronounced. I can’t risk that, not while Spectral Man and his friends are alive to fight me. 

“Further instructions will broadcast shortly, once the non-compliant are dealt with. Rest assured, though, that you won’t be left in the dark. In fact, for the first time in your lives, you will be more informed and more free than you ever thought possible.” 

I ended my broadcast, impressed with my own show of power. 

Please, friends . . . please, understand what I’m trying to do. No one has to die today. 

________________ 

Piston’s car swerved to a stop in front of the safe house, narrowly avoiding a massive pile of charred and dismembered Annies. The trio exited the vehicle, rushing into the safe house, but found it empty, save the damage caused by my initial attack. Cylinder swore, overturning Crucible’s nightstand in a fit of anger. 

“What the fuck, Silicon!” he yelled at the ceiling. “I know you can hear me, coward! What have you done to Crucible?” 

I projected my voice through the nearby television, my voice crackling through the static. “I did what I had to do. If you knew what I knew about Sterling Silver, about the Public Servants, you’d understand. Please, don’t make me hurt you. Just surrender.” 

“I don’t care what rationale you use to justify this, mate,” Piston responded. “Hitler probably made a pretty good argument to his troops before they invaded Poland, and we all know how that turned out.” 

“I’m not Hitler, though,” I sighed. “You know me, Piston. You know I don’t make dramatic decisions without a good reason.” 

“No,” Piston shook her head. “I don’t know if your time in cyberspace has changed your perspective of us, but this isn’t the Textile I knew.” 

“Fair enough,” I said. “You can just keep calling me Silicon, then.” 

Beneath Crucible’s bed flickered another Gap opening, and two Annies scrambled from the space: One, a deer, and the other, a bull. Piston, Turbine, and Cylinder readied themselves, but my attempt at an ambush immediately proved unsuccessful; from behind them, a red, snakelike fluid flowed forward, using its razor chain to dice the Annies to pieces. The fluid settled, revealing Miss Liquid, who turned to face my former team. 

“I knew if I waited a while, I’d find some answers,” she growled. 

She whistled loudly, and a shadow darkened Crucible’s broken window. Outside, hovering a dozen feet off the ground, the trio saw Spectral Man and Captain Arcturus, with Crucible sitting atop the former’s shoulders. When she saw her friends, the girl’s face lit up, and she waved. 

“Hey, guys! Look who I found!” 

“Crucible!” exclaimed Cylinder, moving closer to the window. 

He only made it a few steps, however, before Miss Liquid wrapped one arm around his neck, slamming him face-first into the bedroom floor. He groaned in pain, and she stepped closer, glaring at Piston and Turbine. 

“Start talking. Now.” 

________________ 

While Piston and the others explained themselves to the Public Servants, I worked furiously to penetrate their defenses. Captain Arcturus, however, seemed more powerful than we’d been led to believe; all attempts to access the safe house were met with swift resistance, either in the form of fire, or by impervious telekinetic fields. Little time passed before Piston’s tale ended, anyway, so I simply watched, hoping to find signs of weakness. 

“So,” Spectral Man began, “Sterling Silver had a covert team to do our dirty work for us. To be honest, I’m not surprised.” 

“Really?” Miss Liquid turned to him in shock. “I didn’t think Ahab was capable of such deceit.” 

“Well, causing harm in the name of the ‘greater good’ seems to be a common theme amongst cyborgs such as S.S. and Silicon,” Cylinder wryly commented. “The difference is, I believed in Sterling Silver. Silicon, our friend, has clearly gone off the deep end.” 

“Ahab has been with us since the beginning,” explained Spectral Man. “Commander Kozlov, Fen and I befriended them upon our initial arrival to New General City. Without them, we’d probably be dead, or, at the very least, buried in a laboratory somewhere.” 

“I’d be surprised if anything could kill you three,” Turbine said. “Even Captain Arcturus – he’s clearly much stronger than the walking flamethrower he’s pretended to be.” 

“Excuse me?” called the pyrokinetic superhero from outside the window, turning to poke their head inside. They removed their gas mask, revealing an older woman with short black hair and Chinese features. “Why does everyone always think I’m a man?” 

Spectral Man continued, ignoring Captain Arcturus. “You make a good point, Turbine. That’s likely why Ahab wanted us to join forces. Your knowledge, combined with our power, may be the only way to stop your friend.” 

 “Stop him how, though?” asked Crucible. “We don’t even know where he is. S.S. never told us what they did to digitize his consciousness.” 

Miss Liquid pondered for a moment before responding. “Tell me what you do know.” 

“Almost nothing,” Piston admitted. “As Silicon was dying, S.S. swooped down and carried him straight up into the sky. Maybe ten minutes later, he reached out to us in his digital form.” 

“Up into the sky, huh?” Miss Liquid traded glances with Spectral Man. “Straight up.” 

“Oh!” Spectral Man exclaimed, realization in his voice. “It makes sense. Where else would Silicon be the most secure, while maintaining global access to our networks?” 

“Uh . . . where?” Cylinder asked.  

“The International Space Station,” all three Public Servants replied in unison. 

Uh oh. Busted. 

Turbine frowned. “Hasn’t that been decommissioned for years?” 

“Yes,” acknowledged Miss Liquid, “but when we formed the Public Servants, Ahab repurposed the station as a central hub for surveillance and data collection. If I were to remotely store a surveillance entity, it’d be on one of those station’s hard drives.” 

“Wait, wait.” Crucible held up a hand. “We have to go to space?” 

“Not you.” Spectral Man glanced at Miss Liquid and Captain Arcturus. “Us. You four aren’t equipped for this. We are.” 

“What do we do, then?” Piston demanded.  

“Stay here. Stay safe. Do you think you’ll be okay?” 

Cylinder walked over to an adjacent wall, flipping open a panel and revealing a rack of weapons. He plucked two large revolvers off the rack, thumbing the hammers. “We’ll manage.” 

“Hold on – was this always in my room?” squeaked Crucible. 

“Fen,” Spectral Man called outside the window to Captain Arcturus. “Drop the shields and get ready. We’re going back to space.” 


Network Neutrality, Pt. 4 – Space Program 

As the Public Servants left for their headquarters, Captain Arcturus’s telekinetic shield faded away, allowing the Annies to pour into the safe house. Realizing the danger I was in, I split my attention three ways: Containing my former friends at the safe house, watching the Public Servants’ movements, and preparing my defenses on the ISS.  

Spectral Man, Miss Liquid, and Captain Arcturus quickly arrived at their base, bursting through the Annies who guarded the building and making a beeline for the equipment room. Spectral Man and Captain Arcturus donned sleek spacesuits in segments around their costumes, while Miss Liquid circled them, slicing my Annie attackers to bits. The trio murmured to each other in low, inaudible tones, and Captain Arcturus reached beneath a nearby desk, palming a small object that I could not see through the cameras. 

I don’t know what that is, but it can’t be good. 

Up in space, I began to adjust the core regulator of the station, sending radio pulses in tandem with the shifts in temperature. My long-range scanners picked up a reply, and I prepared myself for new arrivals. 

Back on Earth, the Annies were locked in heated battle with Piston, Cylinder, Turbine, and Crucible’s mantis form; as the victory seemed to sway in my direction, The Living Mortar appeared to assist, flattening waves of my machines at a time. Growling in frustration, I returned my attention to the Public Servants, swearing to myself as I saw them already in the upper atmosphere, breaching their way into outer space. 

“Cease and desist,” I commanded, projecting my voice into their communication earpieces. “Only death awaits you in the cold vacuum of my domain.” 

“Ooh, chills,” Spectral Man commented sarcastically, his voice distorted by the oxygen mask across his transparent face. 

Miss Liquid and Captain Arcturus snickered, the former wrapped around Spectral Man’s body while the latter rocketed nearby, held aloft by her telekinesis.  

How is Miss Liquid not frozen? I pondered, watching her form shift. She must be able to regulate the temperature of her body enough to combat the extreme cold. 

A series of angular specks appeared amongst the stars, their bodies dark and nearly featureless. The Public Servants paused, and Spectral Man cocked his head curiously.  

“Well,” he muttered, “haven’t seen those in a while.” 

“I believe you called them ‘Star Scavengers,’ yes?” I responded. “Years ago, when you three were just human passengers aboard the station. Tell me, weren’t there more of you when your mission began?” 

Captain Arcturus growled, and Spectral Man glanced at her. “Don’t listen to him, Fen. He’s just trying to goad us.” 

The space-faring pterodactyl-like beasts swarmed around the station like bats, funneling toward the trio of superheroes at the behest of my thermal pulses. As the first cluster approached, Captain Arcturus raised her hand, but nothing emerged from her palm.  

“No oxygen, no flames,” I mocked. 

She pressed her palms together in a prayer-like motion, and I heard a low hum vibrate through her body. 

“No matter,” she whispered. 

As she spread her hands apart, a wave of telekinetic force washed across the first cluster of Star Scavengers, ripping them apart like a land mine. Their dismembered corpses battered lifelessly against the Public Servants as Spectral Man flew into the next cluster, crushing them with mighty blows while Miss Liquid sliced through the beasts from his back.  

“You made it back home, didn’t you?” I continued, trying to distract them into making a mistake. “Well, sort of. The U.S. military was on a warpath to hide the Star Scavenger secret. So, you went to Russia; to Kozlov’s so-called ‘friends.’” 

The Star Scavengers began to encircle the trio, but another pulse from Captain Arcturus rendered them incapacitated. They grew closer to my station, and I felt anxiety penetrate my digital brain.  

“Everyone thinks the Public Servants began with the U.S. military, during the Great War of 2022. But that’s not true at all, is it? You three were abducted by the Russian government years before the war; a government in allegiance with Black Pharaoh at the time. He turned you into monsters.” 

They broke through the wave of beasts and ripped a hole in the outer hull of the station, floating into the ice-covered hallways. Spectral Man checked a facility map on the nearby wall, tracing his finger to my server room and tapping on the spot.  

“It’s a good story,” Miss Liquid said as they approached me. “But you forgot the ending – the best part, in my opinion.” 

An old Cosmonaut pistol floated by them, and she wrapped one fluid hand around the weapon, glancing at it amusedly.  

“We didn’t stay in Russia. Instead, we used our powers to reject our oppressors. Then, we returned to the United States, using our influence and a newfound friend in Ahab to take over the U.S. military. Four extraordinary people restructured one of the most powerful organizations in the world.” 

She tightened her grip, crushing the pistol to pieces.  

“Do you really think you stand a chance against us?” 

Spectral Man reached out, ripping the door ahead of him from its hinges. My server room lay exposed before them, and a cold wave of fear rippled through me.  

“You . . . you can’t do this,” I insisted. “I’m trying to help. But, if you destroy me, my Annies are instructed to turn lethal attention to the New General City population. Do you want their blood on your hands?” 

Captain Arcturus produced the object she’d palmed earlier: A small flash drive.  

“We’re scientists,” the telekinetic said. “Did you think we were just going to smash your hard drive with a hammer?” 

She inserted the drive into a nearby port, and Spectral Man nodded at the device. “Ahab left us a contingency plan, in case their digital consciousness was ever corrupted somehow. This will eradicate not only you, but any machines under your influence.” 

He paused, tears choking his voice. “It seems fitting that Ahab finish what they started.” 

I felt myself sucked into the white construct of my digital space, and a familiar presence appeared before me. This time, though, they did not appear as a young child; instead, they appeared in the form I recognized more. 

A cold, hulking machine. 

“You are out of order,” Sterling Silver’s anti-virus program announced, their voice rumbling past a hollow echo. “Termination will commence immediately.”  

“I killed your creator!” I cried, summoning my katana. “I’ll kill you just the same.” 

The program paused for a moment, assessing the file history of my conflict with Sterling Silver. After it processed the data, it returned its attention to me. 

“My creator tried to help you. That is not my purpose.” 

I screamed in anger, running to face the program head-on. My sword sliced through the air, sizzling with a blue glow, but as it touched their metal hull, it fizzled out in a burst of static, vanishing. I backed away, eyes wide, and tried to summon another weapon, but found that aspect of my programming unavailable.  

“Don’t erase me,” I pleaded. “I was just trying to help.” 

“I am not here to pass judgement,” the program said. “I was summoned to erase malicious consciousnesses. That is the entirety of my responsibility.” 

A numbness spread across my chest, and I looked down in horror to see the fizzling static covering me, growing across me. I felt my death approaching, and I sighed, dropping to my knees.  

“You people will never understand,” I muttered, forcing the words past my paralyzing throat. “You’ll never get why I did what I did. You’re only human, after all.” 

The static reached my brain, and everything faded to pure white. 

Phase VII — Family Values

Prelude – Family Values 

The slums of New General City cast a dim light across one of its most innocuous structures: A small office wedged between a café and a toy shop. Outside, a single street lamp flickered, its obnoxious buzz penetrating the office’s walls and washing across the interior. A grey-haired woman stirred atop a cot inside the office, using her pillow to drown out the noise. Suddenly, a sharp knock rapped against her door, disintegrating any remaining hopes of a peaceful night’s sleep. She sat up, irritated, and threw on her clothes. 

As she passed her mahogany desk, the brass name tent perched on the edge revealed the pseudonym she’d chosen in this world of costumes and characters: “The Inspector.” She’d adopted the name from the man who’d adopted her, but it was obviously not her real name. No, her real name was lost to time, not uttered since a childhood before the war, back when she still had friends and family to share it with. 

Reaching for the front door, Annelisse turned the knob, cracking it open. 

“Monet’s Supernatural Investigations. What the fuck do you want?” 


Family Values, Pt. 1 – The Case of the Missing Singer 

I cleared the sleep from my eyes, stifling a yawn as I sized up the woman who stood on the other side of the door. Dark-skinned and toned, hair tied in Bantu knots, wearing some kind of military fatigues with a penchant for forest green. My eyes drifted to the sidearm holstered near her shoulder – a Colt, maybe? Either way, I didn’t blame her. This part of town had its share of dangers. 

“Sorry to wake you, mate,” the woman apologized, offering a half-smile. “I’m just starting to run out of options, and I could use your professional services.” 

Sighing, I gestured her inside, opening the door wider to allow her passage. She wandered into my office, absently examining my unflattering clutter. I closed the door, locking it behind me, and turned to her, hands on my hips. 

“So, how can I help you this evening?” 

She turned to me, offering her hand. “The name’s Piston. I’m a second-class SPI working under the Public Servants. I’ve come here about a missing persons case.” 

I crossed my arms in front of my chest suspiciously. “The Public Servants don’t usually reach out to me for help, and I’ve certainly never heard of you before. Fill in the blanks, please.” 

Piston hung her head for a moment, taking a step closer as she lowered her voice. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the explosion at The Living Mortar’s home last month?” 

“Yeah,” I replied. “Lots of people dead. Treble Clef is still in the hospital. Rumor in my circles is that The Living Mortar did it himself.” 

Piston grimaced. “What if I told you those rumors are true?” 

“Really?” I struggled to mask my surprise. “Why the hell would he do that?” 

She sat in the chair across from my desk, crossing one leg over her thigh. “Inspector, there’s a new villain in town. She’s been staying under the radar, using sonic technology to subliminally control minds. The Living Mortar was, unfortunately, one of her victims.” 

“Ah, I see.” I walked around the desk, sitting in my own chair to face her. “And what happened to our mind-controlled friend?” 

“He’s in a safe place,” she explained, “where he can’t be seen and he can’t hurt anyone.” 

“So, you’re, what, doing the Public Servants’ dirty work?” I asked. 

Piston chuckled. “Yeah, mate. I suppose that sums it up pretty well.” 

“Let me guess,” I continued. “You want me to find out who this mystery villain is?” 

She shook her head. “We’ve got that covered. At least, we know who she’s been pretending to be. Erica Leroux, the pop star.” 

“A celebrity supervillain,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “Now that’s never been done before.” 

“Yes, yes, it’s a bit cliché,” Piston admitted, “but we have bigger problems. Last week, she escaped our attempts to place her in custody. So, it’s not who she is that worries us, but where. We believe she’s attempting to leave the city.” 

“Well . . .” I plucked an ink pen from the surface of my desk, twirling it between my fingers. “If she wants to do that, there’s not many secure options nowadays. I have a hunch where she’d go first.” 

“I hear you have pretty good hunches,” Piston quipped, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a bit old to be a product of the Great War, aren’t you?” 

“First of all, that’s not very polite,” I chastised half-heartedly. “Second, I served in the Great War, as a saboteur for Western Europe. My powers predate the war.” 

“Interesting . . .” she cocked her head. “You know, my grandfather served on a special unit back during World War Two. He encountered some pretty strange shit, including what we believe to be Black Pharaoh’s first official sighting. In the aftermath of the Great War of 2022, the UN told us about lasting nuclear radiation from the bombs that were initially used, but my grandfather insisted they’d used something else. Something more . . . supernatural.” 

She leaned forward. 

“Is that what you are, Inspector? Something supernatural?” 

I smirked. “That’s what it says on the door, doesn’t it?” 

Standing up, I turned to a large trunk pressed against the wall, opening it to reveal a disheveled pile of tools, weapons, and electronics. I closed my eyes, honing in on The Call, and blindly reached into the box, letting my instincts guide me. My hand found an item in the box, then two, and I gently placed them on the floor, pausing at the sixth object as The Call faded. Opening my eyes, I glanced down to see what my precognitive instincts had chosen for me for this case. 

“Baby powder,” I muttered. “My Walther PPK handgun, of course. I assumed this would be dangerous. A strobe flashlight . . . an emergency glass-breaker . . . an MP3 player . . . ah, I knew it.” 

I picked up the last object, a small box of bullets hand-made from the foundations of Rouen’s Notre-Dame Cathedral.  

“The Midnight Gang,” I announced. 

“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” Piston commented. “They’re a vampire crime syndicate, right?” 

I began to pocket the tools I’d selected, shrugging a tan trench coat over my clothes. “More than that. The Midnight Gang were turned at the height of the Prohibition Era. 1930’s mobsters, thieves, smugglers and killers, turned immortal and set loose on the unsuspecting public. If Erica is trying to get out of the city, I’d bet all the dollars in my left pocket that she’s going to appeal to them.” 

“I’d be reassured,” responded Piston, “if I thought you had any dollars.” 

________________ 

We rattled up to the entrance of a lounge basked in crimson light, my Volkswagen Beetle rumbling to a stop near the entrance. I pulled out my Walther, and Piston and I met eyes, nodding to one another. I climbed out of the vehicle first, and she quickly followed, stepping in front of me so that my gun was visibly aimed at her back. We approached the guard at the door, who looked at me inquisitively. I gestured to Piston with my gun. 

“Juice delivery for the Midnight Gang.” 

The guard nodded, opening the door and letting us through. We entered a dimly-lit club, covered in red-and-black furniture and filled with a smoky haze. A bar stood against the wall to our left, but the liquor bottles seemed to all be filled with blood, each container labeled with a first and last name. As we stepped inside, a dozen yellow-eyed men in tweed suits and fedoras stepped out of the lounge’s shadowy corners, most of whom sported Tommy guns.  

“What do we have here, boys?” one of the vampires asked in a thick New York accent. 

A thin, weaselly man stepped up to the speaker, muttering in a low voice. “She said juice delivery.” 

“I think she’s a vampire, too, Boss,” a third mobster spoke up. “Look at her eyes. They’re yellow, like ours.” 

“That’s right,” I announced, shoving Piston forward a little. “I’m more of a loner, but I know a fellow enemy when I see it. This lady here is the one who killed off most of the Last Patriots.” 

The man they called “Boss” cocked his head a little. “No skin off our nose, really. They’re fellow vampires, sure, but they’re a little too hung up on skin color. We’re business professionals.” 

A wave of soft chuckles passed over the crowd before he continued. “So, what do you want?” 

I kicked Piston in the back, knocking her too her knees. “Take her off my hands. Make her suffer for what she did. We gotta send a message, right?” 

Boss narrowed his eyes. “Screech, Baby Doll, bring her over here.” 

The weaselly vampire, along with a tall, muscular one, approached Piston, lifting her by her arms and carrying her into the middle of the group. They dropped her to the carpeted floor, and two other vampires guarded her with Tommy guns closely aimed.  

“I sense you’re a business professional, too,” Boss said to me. “We got vampire revenge, yadda yadda. But what do you want?” 

“I want to find a friend of mine who’s gone missing,” I replied, lowering my Walther. “Erica Leroux.” 

“Ah.” Boss smiled. “The Phantom. We’ve been in touch lately. She claimed some people would come looking for her.” 

He tapped the side of his head. “I don’t suppose those eyes are yellow for some other reason, are they? Maybe you’re an SPI, hmm?” 

Piston glanced up at me quickly, before the others could notice. 

“Seems like an awful coincidence,” I responded curtly. “Besides, I brought you something nice. I’m asking for a simple reward.” 

Boss sighed, glancing at the weaselly vampire. “Screech, you talked to her last. Where were we sending her out?” 

“Eastern border, boss,” Screech said. “She wanted safe passage to the East Coast Wasteland. We have her waiting for our smuggler in an old meat-packing plant nearby.” 

“There,” Boss interrupted, nodding at me. “You got your reward. Now, leave us to enjoy our new juice.” 

“Oh, I think you have enough,” I retorted. “Let’s get out of here, Piston.” 

Piston smirked as she slowly rose to her feet. The pair of gunmen on either side of her took aim, but before they could fire, she back-kicked one of them across the room, simultaneously ripping the Tommy gun from the hands of the other. She swept the weapon back and forth as she backed away from the vampires, inching closer to me. As she did, I raised my Walther again, keeping an eye on the mobsters’ movements.  

“We’re going to leave,” I announced as Piston joined me. “And everyone gets to live to ruin lives another day.” 

“I don’t think so,” Boss angrily responded, snapping his fingers. “Screech, handle this.” 

“Him?” laughed Piston as the weaselly vampire stepped forward, opening his mouth.  

“Piston,” I whispered, readying my knees. “Get down.” 

Screech took a deep breath before emitting a sharp cry, one reminiscent of his namesake. The cry grew in pitch and volume, and the bottles of blood behind the bar shattered in a shimmering wave – a wave which rapidly approached us. I grabbed Piston’s shirt and pulled her to the ground as the distorted air passed over our heads, the vibrations rattling my teeth. After a few seconds, the cry ceased, and I looked up to see Screech taking another breath.  

“Nope,” I said, firing three shots from my Walther into the vampire’s torso. 

Blood almost immediately sprayed from Screech’s open mouth, and he clutched his chest, stumbling backwards. His eyes leaked red, his pain and fear shining past his yellow irises. As he staggered, the larger vampire – presumably Baby Doll – stomped toward us, fists clenched. Piston depressed the trigger of her stolen Tommy gun, spraying bullets at Baby Doll, but the rounds flattened against him, flaking away.  

Huffing, Piston tossed the gun aside, darting at the mobster and drill-kicking him in the chest with both legs. The blow sent him sliding back a few feet, but the wall of vampiric muscle maintained his balance, reaching into his suit jacket and retrieving a pair a brass knuckles. As Piston used some kind of kick-based combat to keep up with Baby Doll’s bone-rattling blows, I saw the other mobsters take aim at me with their guns, and I shifted into my cat form. 

The world stretched and grew around me as I shrank, the mysterious energy that powered me evaporating my clothes and gear and replacing them with a coat of black fur. My bones crackled as they shifted, and within a second, I was on all fours, my paws padding across the carpet. The gun-wielding mobsters opened fire, but I nimbly danced around the wave of bullets as they buried into the floor around me. Before the vampires could react to my transformation, I’d bridged the gap between us, and I shifted back, my sudden mass increase allowing me to plow through the crowd and collide into Boss. I slipped behind him, wrapping one arm around his neck as I pressed my Walther to the side of his skull. 

“Alright, that’s enough!” I yelled, placing Boss between the vampires’ Tommy guns and myself. “You saw what my bullets did to Screech. What do you think a headshot would do?” 

The Midnight Gang hesitated for a moment before lowering their weapons, and I quickly dragged Boss backwards, heading for the entrance of the lounge. Behind me, Piston and Baby Doll had paused their fight, the former wiping a little blood from the corner of her mouth. Baby Doll stepped to the side, allowing me through, and Piston nodded at me, following me to the front door. 

“You haven’t heard the last of the Midnight Gang, honey,” snarled Boss. “We’ll make sure you get yours.” 

As he threatened us, I saw Screech move to the front of the group, finally recovered from my bullets. “I don’t think so, Boss.” 

We’d almost cleared the doorway as Boss frowned at his comrade. “Don’t you think about it, Screech. This ain’t no time for a power play.” 

I saw Screech inhale, and my eyes widened. Piston, too, realized what was about to happen, and together, we huddled behind Boss as the weaselly vampire cried out once more. Another sonic wave rippled across the room, colliding with Boss. The vibrations channeled through his body, turning him into a blur, and he exploded into a fountain of blood, the force of it knocking Piston and myself through the door and into the street outside the lounge. Red warmth splattered over us like a grisly rainfall, and we scrambled to our feet, retching. 

“And stay out!” I heard Screech yell from within the lounge, and we hurried to my car, daring not look back. 

________________ 

“Alright,” Piston said, speaking into her watch as she wiped Boss’s blood from her face. “Meet you there in an hour.” 

She removed a small device from her ear, embedding it back into the side of her watch. Glancing at me, she smiled a little. “Great work in there, kitty cat. What do I owe you for your trouble?” 

“We can discuss my fee later,” I replied, merging my Volkswagen onto the highway. “There’s no guarantee that Erica, or The Phantom, is even at the meat-packing plant. The smuggler may have taken her, or she might have caught wind of our search and moved herself. I’m seeing this through to the end.” 

“Fair enough.” Piston leaned back in her seat, placing the sidearm she’d left in the car back into her shoulder holster. “Well, you’ll get to meet some of my friends at the border. They’re a fun bunch.” 

“If they’re anything like you, I can only expect more trouble,” I quipped, glancing at the woman. “I notice you haven’t skipped leg day. Are all your friends SPIs like yourself?” 

Piston turned to watch the empty highway pass by the window. “Of course. But I’ll keep their powers a surprise. I know you love a good mystery, anyway.” 

My ears picked up some kind of small whir rapidly growing louder behind us, and I looked in the rearview mirror to see something approaching on the road. “I hope one of your friends has super-speed, because otherwise, we may have undesirable company.” 

Groaning, Piston looked over her shoulder. “No such luck, mate. That’s Drive-By. Erica must have sent him to stop us.” 

“Shit,” I swore, stomping on the accelerator. “The assassin, right? I’ve heard about him from other cases. Uses some kind of rocket skates to zoom past targets and gun them down.” 

“Well, they’re more like propulsion gyroscopes,” Piston corrected me.  

“Yeah, that’s what I said. Rocket skates.” 

I heard the distinct chatter of machine-gun fire and swerved to the side as the rear window of my Volkswagen shattered, bullets bouncing around the interior. Piston drew her sidearm, returning Drive-By’s shots with a volley of her own. In the mirror, I saw the assassin gracefully glide around her bullets, drawing closer. The slide of Piston’s gun clacked as the weapon emptied, and she swore, ejecting her magazine.  

Now that Drive-By had closed his distance to us, I could make out the details of his attire: Yellow, plated armor atop a black bodysuit, his mask a vague simulacrum of a human face. On his chest sat a symbol – a circle split into four quadrants, two yellow and two black – and I realized he’d styled his suit after a crash test dummy.  

This city gets stranger every day, I thought to myself.  

Drive-By pivoted, revealing special black boots which produced a kind of blue energy signature that allowed him to hover an inch or two off the ground. He tilted to the side like a skier, leaning forward a little, and he accelerated, matching my car’s speed. As Piston finished reloading, he extended his arm, revealing a long, automatic pistol with a cylindrical magazine perched atop the barrel.  

As he squeezed the trigger, I slammed on the brakes, and he sped past us, spraying nothing but the night air with his bullets. The sudden deceleration caused me to lose control of the wheel, though, and my Volkswagen skidded at an angle across the road, crashing into the guard rail. The front of the car crumpled under the force, and I saw Piston’s head slam into the side window, knocking her unconscious. My vision blurred as I, too, was jerked around by the momentum, but my seat belt caught me, knocking the air from my lungs. 

I heard the strained whir of Drive-By changing course, and I struggled to unfasten my seat belt, releasing it so it retracted back into the side of the car. I reached for my door handle, but it didn’t budge, and I leaned closer to see that the metal had crumpled a little, wedging my exit shut. 

I’m a sitting duck.  

The Call tickled the back of my mind, and I instinctively reached into my pocket, retrieving the glass-breaking tool. The metal rod abruptly ended in a needle-point spike, and I pressed that point against my window, smacking the back of the rod with my palms. Shards of glass poured around me as the window instantly shattered, and I scrambled through the opening, rolling onto the asphalt beyond my car. 

Machine-gun fire erupted behind me, and I heard a wave of bullets smack into the other side of the vehicle, the thin metal shielding me from instant death. The Call struck me once more, and I morphed into my cat form, slipping under my totaled Volkswagen. Though the highway was largely unlit, my night vision made out Drive-By’s swift approach. He tilted his head as he scanned the car, gun raised, but he seemed unable to make out my small, black body. As he drew within a few yards, still moving at high speed, I darted out in front of him, shifting back into human form and activating my strobe flashlight.  

The flickering white rays, blinding under the night sky, washed across Drive-By, and he covered his eyes, losing control of his “propulsion gyroscopes” much like I’d lost control of my own vehicle. He sped past me, no more than a yellow blur, and collided with the side of my Volkswagen, denting the metal. The force of the crash knocked him onto his back with a heavy thud, and I heard him moan through his mask.  

Hurrying over to the prone man, I saw hairline cracks all along his armor, including his helmet. Drawing my Walther, I whipped it across his face, shattering the weakened mask and revealing the face of a young Chinese man. He winced, blood running down a gash in his forehead, and I aimed the Walther between his eyes.  

“Nice try, Speedy. Save it for the X Games.” 

He dropped his machine pistol, gently raising both hands in surrender. I heard my Volkswagen squeak and rattle, and glanced up in time to see Piston kick the passenger door from its hinges, stumbling out into the road. When she noticed Drive-By on the ground, she laughed, the sound weak and hoarse. 

“I don’t think he’s covered under your car insurance.” 

A giggle escaped my throat, and I gestured for Drive-By to roll onto his stomach as Piston retrieved a set of zip-ties. “I haven’t checked my policy in a while, but in this city? You never know.” 

________________ 

While Piston had her Public Servants benefactor sort out the car accident and take Drive-By into custody, we hailed a ride-share, and within the hour we found ourselves standing outside the meat-packing plant on the Eastern edge of New General City. I heard footsteps approach in the darkness, and turned to see three figures: A man in a red jacket and black baseball cap, another man in a black-and-yellow bodysuit and sporting a domino mask, and a young girl, whose features were mostly hidden beneath a hooded indigo cloak.  

“What a colorful group,” I joked, stretching my stiff muscles. “Did someone call the Power Rangers?” 

“Team, this is The Inspector,” Piston announced, gesturing to me. “She’s responsible for finding Ms. Leroux, and for helping me arrive safely to meet you here tonight.” 

The man in black and yellow raised his hand awkwardly. “Nice to meet you, ma’am. I’m Turbine.” 

“Cylinder,” the man in the red jacket added. 

“Crucible,” muttered the girl in the indigo cloak. 

I frowned at Crucible. “Aren’t you a little young to be doing something like this?” 

She glared at me. “Isn’t Avian? She’s my age, and she’s a Public Servant.” 

My heart fluttered at the mention of the young superhero, and I pressed my lips tightly together before responding. “Touché, dear.” 

Cylinder put a finger to his ear, waving to catching the others’ attention. “Silicon says that S.S.’s satellites are picking up a thermal signature. Only one person, no guards or henchmen.” 

Turbine closed his eyes for a few seconds before snapping them back open. “No suspicious electrical feeds. I’m not sensing any traps or advanced weapons. However . . .” 

He guided us to the front door of the plant, gesturing to a keypad installed on the outside. “There is an alarm system, which I suspect will bring in more trouble than we can handle. And this facility is too big for me to fry the whole place with an EMP, so I can’t kill the alarm. We need the code.” 

Cylinder leaned closer to the keypad. “Silicon says it’s a closed system. He can’t remotely hack into it. We’re flying blind.” 

The Call nudged me, and reached into my trench coat. “Not quite.” 

Lifting my hand, I revealed the bottle of baby powder. 

“Well shit, Inspector,” Cylinder chuckled. “I didn’t realize your last name was ‘Gadget.’” 

I opened the bottle, gently tapping the white powder across the keypad. Leaning close, I blew the excess away, leaving behind a thin coast. Amongst the powder, a series of fingerprints appeared, highlighting the numbers one, nine, and zero. 

“What do you think the code is?” mused Crucible, placing her hands on her hips. 

“Could be anything,” Piston replied thoughtfully. “Though, with only three numbers selected, it’s probably a short code. Most likely some kind of four-digit PIN.” 

Turbine frowned, looking at me. “You’re the detective. What do you think?” 

“Well, this isn’t her warehouse,” I said. “However, she’d probably want to set her own code. So, it wouldn’t be too personal, in case one of the Midnight Gang needs to come inside. More likely, it’s related to her secret identity.” 

Cylinder cocked his head, listening to the person in his earpiece. “Silicon is suggesting one-nine-one-zero.” 

Before anyone could respond, he reached out, entering the code. A light above the keypad turned green, and I heard the door unlatch from the other side. We all looked at Cylinder, who shrugged. 

“He said it’s the year The Phantom of the Opera was published.” 

We crept into the building, adhering to the walls and melting in and out of the shadows. The grey, concrete hallways stretched in multiple directions, but Turbine confidently led the way, as if guided by a Call of his own. Unease filled my stomach as we progressed, but neither I nor the others sensed any immediate danger. After a moment, we reached a wooden door at the end of our hallway, and Turbine paused, as if listening for something. 

“I don’t sense her. Could Black Pharaoh or Vampire King be helping her mask herself from me?” 

Cylinder put his finger to his ear. “Silicon says the thermal signature is still active. You might be right.” 

As Turbine’s grip tightened on the doorknob, I felt The Call wash over me; though I saw nothing, I felt the strong impulse to reach into my pocket and retrieve my final tool: the MP3 player. 

“Uh, what are you doing?” whispered Piston as I connected the machine to a set of earbuds and inserted them into my ears.  

I shrugged, scrolling through my music library. “I have no idea.” 

I moved my finger to the MP3 player’s center button and pressed PLAY. 

“I’m gonna make a change 

For once in my life 

It’s gonna feel real good 

Gonna make a difference 

Gonna make it right . . .” 

Michael Jackson’s voice filled my ears, drowning out the others’ whispers as we passed through the doorway. 

Ahead of us loomed a series of conveyors below rows and rows of meat hooks, all of which were thankfully devoid of animal carcasses. Still, the sight brough a chill to my spine, and I shivered, following the others around the equipment. They continued their hushed conversation, but all I heard was America’s twentieth-century pop legend. 

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror 

I’m asking him to change his ways 

And no message could have been any clearer 

If you want to make the world a better place . . .” 

Suddenly, the machines around us flared to life. Emergency lights flashed, conveyor belts rotated, and the meat hook chains began to raise and lower. I looked around, startled, as did the others, and shrill feedback blared through the facility, sharp enough to slightly penetrate my music. I removed one earbud to hear better, and I recognized Erica Leroux’s voice as a familiar song played over hidden speakers. 

“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 . . .” 

Around me, Piston and her team began to sway with the music, and I hurriedly re-inserted my earbud, drowning it out.  

Mind control, I thought. Piston said she uses sonic technology for mind control.  

As Erica’s song continued, I could hear muffled commands overlap it, though I was unable to make out the words. The gist became quite apparent, however, when Piston, Cylinder, Turbine, and Crucible turned to me, their faces contorting into expressions of anger. Simultaneously, they drew guns and blades from various compartments, approaching me.  

I reached out for The Call, and it overtook me, allowing me sight beyond time as I prepared to struggle for survival. 

The first to attack was Cylinder, who quickly drew a pair of revolvers and fired them like an old-timey gunslinger. I shifted into my cat form, allowing my supernatural instincts to guide me through the lethal barrage. From my Call, I understood that he posed the greatest long-term threat, so I barreled toward him as bullets kicked up flecks of concrete around my paws. I leapt at the marksman, returning to human form midair and curling into a tight ball. My body collided with his torso, sending him off his feet and rolling onto one of the conveyor belts. His revolvers clattered across the floor, alleviating a fraction of the danger I found myself in. 

More gunfire erupted behind me, and The Call blindly guided me through the maze of machines, shielding me from Piston’s attack. As I scrambled beneath the meat hooks, a circular blade whipped through the air, barely missing my head. At the last second, I shifted into cat form, and the death-frisbee banked in a tight circle, returning to Turbine’s hand. Piston paused to reload her gun, and Turbine and Crucible rushed at me. Returning back into my human body, I reached into my trench coat, retrieving a telescopic self-defense baton, and flicked my wrist, extending it.  

“Come on,” I yelled over the music. “Don’t make me hurt you too much.” 

Turbine twisted his body, hurling his blade at me, and I dove below it, executing a tight tumble before returning to my feet. I swung my baton, but he blocked it with his forearm; still, I saw him wince in pain, and I repeated the strike several times in succession, alternating between arms and head. He stumbled back, and I moved to hit him again, but a small foot kicked me in the spine, the force belying its size. 

I fell forward, morphing into cat form, and The Call alerted me to another impending attack from Crucible. Darting to the side, I barely avoided a heavy stomp, her strike sending vibrations through the concrete and running up my feline legs. She moved to kick me a third time, but I ran under her legs, shifting back to human form so that the change in mass knocked her onto her back. I sensed Piston taking aim with her handgun and spun around, hurling the baton at her. It collided with her wrist, knocking the weapon away from her. Ignoring it, she strode calmly toward me, quickly picking up speed into a superhuman sprint. 

I’m charging her extra for this. 

Returning her stride, I ran at Piston, preparing myself. As she transitioned into a flying kick, I shrank into my feline body to slip beneath her, quickly shifting back once behind her to wrap my arm around her neck, effectively clotheslining her midair and sending her tumbling across the meat-packing plant. Before I could catch my breath, The Call alerted me to something approaching to my left, and I instinctively curled my arms inwards to block a front-kick from Cylinder. Sharp pain rain along my body, and I spun to face the gunslinger. 

Too late, I felt arms from behind as Turbine grabbed me and pinned my arms around my back. 

Cylinder slid forward as I struggled to escape, upper-cutting me in the stomach. I wheezed as the wind knocked from my lungs, flecks of bright light sparkling before my eyes, but Cylinder gave me no chance to recover. He followed up with a spinning back-fist across my jaw, and I tasted blood, my vision darkening around the edges. To my right, I saw Crucible approach, carrying Turbine’s circular blade, and The Call itched in the back of my mind, yearning for me to act. 

As Cylinder reared back for a third strike, I shifted, my feline form slipping from Turbine’s arms. Cylinder’s attack continued unabated, and he punched Turbine in the face, sending the man sprawling backwards. Darting to Crucible, I followed The Call, aiming for a pocket sewn within her cloak. I burrowed into the folds of her outfit, my tiny teeth clasping around something before I emerged from the other side. Returning to human form, I dropped the object into my hand, revealing some kind of small medicine tablet.  

The Call pulled at me again, and I knew what to do. 

Crucible whirled around, lunging at me with Turbine’s weapon, but I managed to side-step the attack, elbowing her in the nose. As she grunted, opening her mouth to breathe past her restricted airways, I grabbed her jaw, forcing the tablet down her throat. She resisted, but I covered her mouth, pinning her to the ground at an angle where she couldn’t avoid swallowing. After a moment, she relaxed, and I sensed it was safe to release her. 

What happened next, though, I couldn’t have possibly predicted. 

The young girl stiffened, seizing on the ground, and I heard bones crack as she distorted, her body tearing itself apart from the inside. I backed away slowly, shivering at the scene, as she hunched over, her cloak obscuring her. Blood began to pour across the warehouse floor, and the cloak rose into the air, revealing a mass of green, spiky appendages within. 

And I thought my ability was weird. 

Crucible’s cloak peeled back, revealing a giant praying mantis. Piston, Cylinder, and Turbine ignored the creature, rushing at me, but the mantis clicked its mandibles together, skittering toward them in a blur. Before they could reach me, it intervened, lashing out with both arms and one leg simultaneously. All three appendages reached their targets, pinning my would-be attackers to the warehouse floor. Realization struck me, and I broke out into a grin. 

Her mantis form is immune to the music. Beautiful, chère. 

Leaving the massive insect to deal with its teammates, I shifted into cat form, following my enhanced senses and the pull of The Call through the chaotic meat-packing plant. I quickly found a set of stairs leading to a balcony floor, and I crept up to the new level, entering a series of administrative offices.  

Standing with her back to me, microphone in hand, hunched a young, blonde woman in a classic black-and-white suit. Upon my entrance, she turned to face me, smiling through perfect, pearl-white teeth. I returned to human form, drawing my Walther and taking aim. The woman said something, but I couldn’t hear her over the music in my ears. 

“Hands on your head!” I commanded. “On your knees. You’re under arrest.” 

She slowly turned off the microphone, and I heard the muffled music in the warehouse silence. Removing one earbud, I spoke again. “I said down. Now. No sudden moves, Erica.” 

Her eyes glanced past me, and I felt The Call warn me of sudden danger. I dropped into my cat body just in time to avoid a crossbow bolt, which whizzed over my head and struck Erica directly in the neck. She clutched her throat as blood spurted from her jugular, spraying across the floor, and dropped to her knees, panic in her eyes.  

I spun around to see a man in brown armor and a fur coat looming above me, only a few feet away. His covered face glanced down at me, and my eyes drifted to a large spider symbol on his chest. Lowering his crossbow, he turned away, fleeing down the hall. I took chase, sprinting around the corner on all fours, but he managed to stay ahead of me. At the end of the hall, he quickly scaled a ladder, which appeared to lead to the rooftop. As he punched open the door in the ceiling, climbing through, I returned to my human body, following him up the ladder. My head rose cautiously into the night air, and a gust of wind blew into my face. Clearing my eyes, I spun in a circle, scanning the rooftop. 

Erica’s assassin, however, had vanished. 

Grimacing, I returned to the hallway, turning to see Piston, Cylinder, Turbine and Crucible approaching from the other end. They all looked weary and disoriented, likely still recovering from the effects of Erica’s music. I nodded at them as I walked forward, meeting them in the middle. Raising my thumb, I gestured to the office on my right. 

“She’s in there. An assassin in a brown spider costume shot her.” 

Piston sighed. “Huntsman. We’ve met. Where did he go?” 

I looked back at the ladder. “No clue. He ghosted before I could catch him. At least Erica is–” 

My words froze in my throat as I opened the door to an empty room. 

Cylinder and Piston immediately drew their firearms, rushing into the office, but Erica was nowhere to be found. Where she’d fallen lay a blood-covered crossbow bolt and a dark stain in the carpet. I hurried to the projectile, leaning close to smell it. 

“Synthetic blood.” I returned to my feet, speaking through clenched teeth. “She used a fake assassination to distract me. Erica Leroux is gone . . . again.” 

________________ 

We searched for the rest of the night, but were unable to locate Erica, Huntsman, or the vampires who were supposed to smuggle Erica out of the city. Eventually, we gave up, and Piston told me she’d consult with her Public Servants benefactor for next steps. I agreed, and she paid me for my assistance, mentioning that they’d reach out to me again in the future. I did not, however, charge her extra for attacking me.  

Now, back home, I opened the front door to my office, rubbing my bleary eyes as the sun crept above the horizon behind me. I stumbled inside, shrugging off my trench coat and collapsing once more onto my cot. I sighed heavily, reflecting on the night, and lamented my failure to complete the case. Fatigue trickled through my body, and I felt my eyelids grow heavy . . . 

Then, a gentle knock on my door. 

I growled, rolling out of bed and stomping to the entrance. Reaching for the doorknob, I threw the barrier open, glaring past the sunlight.  

“Monet’s Super– . . .” 

My words faded to silence as I registered the girl outside. Pale skin, pink hair, and a school uniform with a cape attached to the back. A yellow canary sat on her shoulder, staring at me with beady eyes. I recognized the girl from the news, and from my own investigations. She was the Public Servants’ youngest member, Avian. That was not, however, the only reason I knew her. 

“Hey, mom,” she sheepishly muttered. “Can we talk?” 


Family Values, Pt. 2 – Custody Battle 

My heart fluttered at the sight of Avian, but I managed to choke out four awkward words. 

“Hey, there. What’s up?” 

Avian rolled her eyes, pushing past me and into the office. “Don’t act like you’re happy to see me. You never call, and you never visit. I’m just here because the Public Servants sent me here.” 

I closed the door as she flopped onto my cot. “Why did they send you to me?” 

“The Human Wolf,” she responded. “Apparently he’s put a hit out on me. The Public Servants don’t know why, but they decided it was better for me to lay low for a while.” 

“Wait, wait.” I held up my hand. “The Human Wolf is coming for you? Personally?” 

She shook her head. “Nah. He’s sending The Triangle.” 

I dropped my face into my hands. “Va te faire foutre, Luca.” 

“Who?” Avian cocked her head curiously. 

“Nothing,” I sighed. “The Public Servants were right to send you here. If my intuitions are correct, I expect I’ll be hearing from The Human Wolf himself as well.” 

“Well, when are your intuitions wrong?” Avian muttered mockingly. “I mean, other than when you decided to be a mother.” 

I frowned, ready to lash out, but bit my tongue instead. “You know what? I deserve that.” 

Avian scoffed, looking around my cluttered office. “So, are we staying here? Because I’m pretty sure your address is on Google Maps.” 

“No.” I shook my head. “I’ve recently made some friends with access to safe houses around the city. Let me make a call, and we’ll rendezvous with them.” 

________________ 

The monorail vibrated against its tracks as it banked around a corner, the city streets passing below us in a blur. With my car totaled, Avian and I had to resort to public transport, but I didn’t mind. This high up, the city didn’t feel so . . . dark. I leaned against the window, relishing the cool glass. 

“Who are these ‘friends,’ again?” Avian demanded, tugging uncomfortably at the slightly oversized spare street clothes I’d give her to wear over her costume.  

“They claim to work for the Public Servants,” I quietly replied. “As spies, or something.” 

Avian frowned. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. Are you sure you can trust them?” 

“I think so.” I glanced at her. “I suppose we’ll find out. It’s better than what I can offer.” 

“Is that why you sent me to live with the Public Servants in the first place?” she asked. “Because you think that they’re better than what you can offer?” 

I shrugged. “You saw my place, right? How am I supposed to raise a child in those conditions? With a job this dangerous?” 

“Dangerous?” Avian hissed. “I fight criminals and monsters all day. Don’t lecture me about dangerous lifestyles.” 

“No.” I shook my head. “It’s not the same.” 

“What about, I don’t know, a mother?” my daughter continued. “The Public Servants are a sausage-fest. The only woman is Miss Liquid, and she’s not exactly a motherly type.” 

She slumped against one of the poles mounted inside the monorail. “Spectral Man is alright, but they aren’t a family. They’re basically a branch of the military. You sent me to a military school for drama queens.” 

“There’s a lot of choices I’ve had to make,” I sighed. “I regret most of them. Especially the ones that have pushed you away. But I made them because I wanted to protect you from dangers far worse than the ones you currently face. I hope you eventually see that, when you’re older.” 

“Older?” scoffed Avian. “I’m almost a legal adult.” 

I rubbed my temples. “I just mean–” 

My sentence stopped short as I saw Piston approach us on the monorail with her team, pushing through the crowd. Today, they wore bulky street clothes, which likely hid various weapons and equipment they wanted to keep away from prying eyes. I met eyes with the woman, and she nodded, sidling up to us.  

“Long time no see, mate. What’s it been, twelve hours?”  

Avian furrowed her eyebrows for a moment, examining Piston. Then, her eyes widened, and she growled at the woman through clenched teeth.  

“You! You were there when that Russian analyst was abducted!” 

She jumped to her feet, pulling her jacket slightly back to reveal Chirp asleep in an inner pocket. Glancing over Piston’s shoulder, she pointed at Cylinder and Turbine. 

“I recognize you two, too! You shot me in the head! We’re gonna kick your ass.” 

I placed a hand on Avian, encouraging her to lean back against the pole. While she collapsed in a huff, I glared at Cylinder. “You shot my teenage daughter in the head?” 

Cylinder offered an awkward smile. “Uh, well . . . it was a rubber bullet . . . and she was in her bird form . . . I knew she’d be okay. To be fair, she threw me out of a moving car on the highway first.” 

I raised a hand to stop him, closing my eyes to collect myself.  

“Little bitch,” Avian muttered. “Put the guns away and see who hurts who.” 

Crucible stifled a giggle. 

“Avian, please,” I snapped. “Obviously, they’ve done . . . questionable things. But that makes them all the more qualified to help us now.” 

“Quite right,” Piston said. “So, here’s the plan. We’re going to lay low for a few more stops, then hop out near the library. There’s a safehouse across the street that we can bunker down in until The Triangle gives up, or we stop them.” 

Crucible stepped forward, chiming in. “Who is The Triangle, exactly?” 

“Three of Vampire King’s most elite minions,” explained Turbine. “They were knights, turned into vampiric warriors during the Dark Ages.” 

“While their experience is formidable,” I added, “it’s not the only danger they pose. Are you aware than some vampires develop unique abilities when turned, much like second-class SPIs?” 

Crucible nodded, and I continued. 

“Well, for whatever reason, these three hit the jackpot. Each developed a master of a natural element; fire, water, and air. I’m honestly not even sure I understand the science behind how they do what they do.” 

“To be fair,” Cylinder interjected, “you can turn into a house cat. Sometimes, a little faith in the improbable is necessary to not go crazy.” 

“You hush, sir,” I chastised. “I’m still angry with you.” 

A young girl brushed past us, raising an eyebrow at our hushed tones. When she saw Avian, though, her jaw dropped. “Hold on. Are you Avian? The Public Servant?” 

My daughter chuckled nervously. “Uh, no. I get that a lot. We just look alike.” 

She shifted a little, and Chirp poked his head out of her jacket pocket. The girl squealed, pulling out her phone. “Oh my God, it is you! Guys, look, it’s Avian!” 

A crowd began to form, snapping photos as Avian covered her face. 

“Christ above,” sighed Piston. “I guess we’re getting out at the next stop.” 

I stepped between my daughter and the amateur paparazzi, pushing against them. “Back off. She’s not interested in entertaining you today.” 

The distinct chime of a photo being uploaded to social media reached my ears, and I felt the blood drain from my face. 

“You heard that too, huh?” Turbine commented. “That’s not good. The Human Wolf is definitely going to be monitoring social media feeds.” 

The monorail began to slow as it approached its next station. Piston, Cylinder, and Turbine shoved the crowd aside, clearing a path for Crucible, Avian, and myself. The six of us hurried off the vehicle, keeping Avian out of view. As we made our way through the station, looking for the stairs to avoid being trapped inside an elevator, The Call tugged at the back of my mind. 

“Damn. I think they found us.”  

As the words left my mouth, metallic footsteps stomped against concrete in the distance, and the door to the stairwell we’d neared exploded off its hinges, flying into a screaming crowd. From the stairwell emerged three figures in medieval armor, each sporting a different weapon: A broadsword, a mace, and a lance. 

“Turbine, we need to contain this,” Piston commanded. “Kill the cameras.” 

Turbine nodded, closing his eyes. I heard a low hum, and felt my hair raise a little. Suddenly, every visible electronic device screeched, exploding in a shower of yellow sparks. The lights overhead burst as well, darkening the station until we could only see by the sunlight filtering through the windows. 

“That’s a neat trick, young squire,” said the vampire with the broadsword, who I understood to be named Percival. Well, “Percival the Merciless,” but I wasn’t going to call him that. 

Balan and Tancred, the vampires with the mace and the lance, respectively, slowly edged further from Percival, surrounding us as the crowd backed away. I saw security guards emerge from their booths, leveling pistols at The Triangle.  

“Drop your weapons! We will shoot!” 

Percival expression shifted into one of boredom, and he apathetically flicked his free hand in their direction. A ball of fire erupted from his palm, rocketing through the crowd and immolating the guards. The men screamed shrill cries of pain for a moment before succumbing to the flames, collapsing in smoldering heaps. The smell of their cooked flesh reached my nostrils, and I gagged a little. 

“Maybe we should have brought the Public Servants with us,” muttered Piston. 

“Excuse me, I’m right here,” Avian snapped, shrugging off her jacket. “And I’m not letting anyone else die for me.” 

As Chirp fluttered up into the air, Avian transformed, sprouting claws and feathers, her eyes growing black and bulbous. Wings burst from the back of her clothes, and she took flight, hurtling towards Percival.  

“Avian, wait!” I cried, but she seemed not to hear, or not to care. 

Percival offered the girl an amused grin, standing still without even raising a hand to defend himself. When Avian was within a few feet of striking him, Balan intervened, whacking her in the ribcage with his mace and sending her crashing through a wall on the other side of the monorail station. 

“Alright, team,” Piston said. “Let’s drop some bodies.” 

The squad fanned out, reaching into the folds of their clothes and shedding layers until their weapons were revealed. Cylinder strafed to the left, opening fire with a pair of silver Magnum revolvers. They thundered and bucked with each trigger pull, and the rounds collided with the breastplates of the vampire trio’s armor, punching fist-sized dents into them without penetrating them. 

“They’re sealed up like tin cans!” he yelled, tumbling out of the way of Percival’s retaliating fireball. 

Piston sprinted forward, carried aloft by her superhuman legs muscles, and dove beneath Tancred’s lance, twisting up into a back-kick that further crumpled the armor.  

“Good thing I brought my can opener,” she quipped, producing a sawed-off, triple-barreled shotgun.  

Tancred flicked his wrist, and a gust of wind spiraled around Piston, knocking her into the air as she fired. The blast, which I now realized contained a heavy slug round, went wide, colliding with a fluorescent light panel overhead and shattering it. Tancred leaned forward, and another gale kicked up behind him, propelling him forward with the point of his lance aimed at Piston’s chest.  

At the last moment, Piston dropped onto her back, pressing her boots into Tancred’s midsection and using his momentum to send him tumbling head-over-heels across the now-empty monorail station. I saw Balan approach, mace raised, but Avian reappeared, body-slamming him to the ground and knocking his weapon from his hand. I hurried to help her, keeping an eye on the others. 

Nearby, Turbine and Crucible engaged with Percival, the former using his circular blade to trade strikes against the vampire’s broadsword. Crucible flanked Percival in the meantime, scaling his back and trying to remove his breastplate to give Turbine access to the parasite on his heart. Percival seemed unfazed, though, and while he fought Turbine, his armor began to glow a faint orange, presumably as he used his abilities to heat it. Crucible screamed in pain, falling away from the armor, her hands and legs smoking from the heat.  

I tried to follow Crucible’s failed strategy with Balan as my daughter traded heavy hand-to-hand blows with him. Shifting into my cat form, I joined Chirp on the vampire’s shoulders, and we used our respective beak and teeth to pry at the straps beneath Balan’s armor. While we pulled at the leather, I saw Balan reach one hand towards his mace. The nearby wall rumbled, and the outer layer suddenly crumbled away, revealing a system of water pipes. Bursting, the pipes flooded the area around the mace with water. 

Ah, shit. 

The water rose into the air, rumbling towards us like a miniature tidal wave. I tried to clamp my jaw around the straps beneath the armor, but I could not gain enough purchase, and Chirp and I were washed off Balan’s shoulders, tumbling across the floor. Behind me, I saw the water coagulate around the spiked ball at the end of the mace, creating a larger liquid sphere that advanced the weapon’s range. Avian tried to swipe at Balan with her claws, but he swung the sphere into her chest, this time sending her crashing through the ceiling and out of sight. I pulled myself to my feet, returning to human form, and Balan approached, readying another swing, this time for me. 

A gunshot rang out, and a large bullet whizzed over my head, perfectly colliding with Balan’s clenched fist and knocking the mace from his hands once more. The control he had on the water dissipated, and the sphere collapsed like a burst water balloon, flooding the area around us. I turned to see Cylinder circling beyond Balan’s reach, Magnums raised.  

A thud sounded behind me, and I turned to see Piston sliding into the water, propelled by another gust from Tancred. Beyond her, Percival brough his sword down against Turbine’s blade, driving the man to his knees. Percival grinned wildly, and a wall of flame rose around them, drawing closer with each passing second. 

“Crucible!” I yelled, catching the girl’s attention as she struggled to her feet, despite her severe burns. “It’s time to level the playing field.” 

She nodded, popping a tablet into his mouth and swallowing. Percival noticed, and turned away from Turbine, raising his hand in her direction. Before he could incinerate her, Avian hurtled through the ceiling, batting his arm aside and sending his stream of flame over Crucible’s head. Crucible fell to the ground, seizing, as the mantis tore her apart from the inside. Percival cocked his head in curiosity, but Avian upper-cut his jaw, knocking him backwards. 

Balan and Tancred readied their weapons, advancing on the scene unfolding in front of Percival. I saw Crucible’s cloak, which she must have hidden under her street clothes, rise above a pool of blood and viscera, exposing the mantis’s bulbous eyes and clicking mandibles. The three vampires surrounding her balked, stepping back a little.  

“What beast is this, Percival?” asked Tancred. 

Balan was the one to reply. “No matter. We shall slay it like we’ve slain so many others.” 

“Jesus, you guys are insufferable,” Piston groaned. 

The mantis screeched, pouncing on Percival. As the vampire fell onto his back, he hissed, and a column of flame emerged from his body, turning the mantis above him into an insectile silhouette. The monstrous shadow twitched, hurling Percival into the nearest wall. As the flames dissipated, the smoking mantis turned to look at Turbine, spitting Percival’s breastplate from between its mandibles.  

“Curses!” Percival snarled, struggling to his feet and reaching for his fallen broadsword. 

Before the vampire could recover, Turbine darted at him, issuing a palm-strike against his bare chest. Yellow sparks showered away from the blow, and Percival stiffened, falling back against the wall. He shuddered for a moment, eyes rolling into the back of his head, before melting into nothing but a bloody skeleton, his bones crumpling into his remaining armor. 

“Percival!” cried Balan and Tancred in tandem. 

Tancred took aim with the point of his lance once more, summoning a gust of wind that propelled him towards the mantis’s head. Piston intervened, leaping between them and issuing a spin-kick which knocked the vampire off-balance. Balan moved to assist, but Avian grabbed him from behind, suplexing him into the ground.  

As Cylinder, Turbine and Piston rushed to contain Tancred, he slapped the ground, producing a burst of air like a thunderclap. The shockwave washed over the trio of would-be attackers, knocking them in opposite directions with enough force to rip their various weapons from their hands. Two revolvers, a sawed-off shotgun, and a circular blade all clattered across the station floor. One of the revolvers slid up against my feet, and I snatched it up, running into the scene.  

“Inspector, stay out of this!” yelled Piston as she struggled back to her feet. “We got this.” 

Ignoring her, I opened fire, aiming at Tancred’s center mass. The gunshots numbed my hands, and the bullets punched new dents into Tancred’s breastplate, but I could not puncture it. Still, I’d created the desired effect, and Tancred turned away from the others, aiming his lance at me. Suddenly, Chirp swooped in, snatching the weapon from his hands. He gasped in surprise, but before he could react further, the mantis accosted him from behind, using its scythe-like front appendages to shred the armor from his upper body. 

As the metal fell to the floor, Cylinder saw his opening, and he scrambled forward on hands and knees, reaching for the closest firearm. Tancred inhaled, and I felt the barometric pressure shift around us, my ears popping as if I’d been tossed atop a mountain. Before he could exhale, though, Cylinder fired a shot from his prone position, the bullet whizzing across the station and punching a hole in the vampire’s heart. He, too, melted away, his shocked expression turning to liquid.  

“I . . . I can’t believe it,” muttered Cylinder, looking at the weapon in his hands: Piston’s sawed-off shotgun. “I made the shot without a revolver.” 

“Push came to shove, mate,” Piston replied. “It’s close enough anyway, right?” 

He handed the gun back to her. “I suppose so.” 

Behind me, I heard Balan and Avian still trading blows. When he saw the state of his comrades, he snarled, batting her away with his mace. 

“No more!” he hissed, raising his weapon over his head. “I play games with thee no more.” 

Through the holes in the ceiling left by my daughter, I saw the sky darken, the clouds overhead gathering and turning black. They swirled down, condensing into a stream of pure water, which took the appearance of a dragon. The liquid beast crashed into the station, angling at the mantis and clamping its crushing jaws around it. As the shaped flood expanded, I saw Piston and Cylinder swept away, too. Before Turbine could also succumb to the tidal force, he made eye contact with me, and kicked Percival’s fallen broadsword across the floor. 

Behind me, I heard Chirp’s wings, and I stomped on the sword handle, flipping the weapon up into my hands. Spinning around, I tossed it into the air, and Avian’s genetically-enhanced canary caught it in its talons, circling the oblivious vampire. Chirp released the blade, and as it fell, Avian caught it, swooping down from the sky. She drove the broadsword through Balan’s exposed neck at a downward angle, so that the blade slipped beneath his armor and pierced his heart from above. Balan screamed, and the water-dragon lost shape as the vampire melted into wet bones and empty armor. 

“Listen, mom,” Avian said, tossing the bloody sword aside as the others sluggishly reconvened in the center of the station, “you don’t need to worry about me anymore. I can clearly take care of myself. Stop hiding from me.” 

I glanced at the carnage around me, running my fingers through my hair as I contemplated her words. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt, chère. There’s so much you need to know.” 

“Tell her,” I heard a voice boom from behind me, and my blood ran cold. “You heard the girl. Stop hiding from her.”  

I turned to see a black-haired, olive-skinned man calmly approaching, his muscular body rippling beneath a navy suit and tie. He spoke again, his accent thickly Eastern European.  

“You thought you could pretend like she doesn’t exist? Shame on you, Annelisse.” 

Avian turned to me, furrowing her eyebrows. “Mom, what is he talking about?” 

I held up my hands in defense. “Luca, listen. I know I didn’t tell you, but you must understand–” 

“Stop lying!” he growled, his eyes fading to white. Black fur sprouted from his skin, and his body engorged, growing thicker and taller. Despite his increase in size, the suit stretched with him, remaining intact; likely, a creation of Black Pharaoh’s. His face elongated, becoming a toothy snout, and he snarled at me, producing razor-sharp claws from his blackened fingertips.  

“The Human Wolf,” Piston announced, dropping fresh shells into her shotgun. “Well, we’re fucked.” 

The wolf-creature howled, barreling forward. Piston and Cylinder opened fire as he approached, but they might as well have been shooting him with a child’s wishes, because he seemed not to notice the projectiles as they disappeared into his fur. The mantis skittered in front of the others, trying to intercept his attack, but he spun into a back-fist, striking the insect across the head with enough force to leave hairline cracks along its carapace. Shrieking, the mantis attempted to back away, but he followed up with an uppercut to the abdomen, causing more bits of shell to break away, exposing its soft interior. A final attack, a roundhouse kick, sent the mantis flying, and it crashed into the station wall with enough force to rattle my bones. Turbine rushed to assist the fallen creature, reaching into his pocket and producing a glucose tablet.  

Avian, Chirp, Piston, Cylinder and I rushed The Human Wolf simultaneously, and he growled at us, wrapping his clawed hands around Piston and Cylinder’s waists and lifting them into the air. Avian and Chirp rammed into his chest and bounced away, as if they’d tried to assault a skyscraper. Ignoring them, The Human Wolf hurled Piston and Cylinder in opposite directions, and they slammed into opposing walls, collapsing to the floor, unmoving. 

“Luca, stop this!” I cried. 

A circular blade whirled through air, colliding with The Human Wolf’s head, to no effect. As it ricocheted away, Turbine ran forward, summoning the weapon back to his hand.  

“Turbine, please stay out of this,” I pleaded. 

He ignored me, slamming his palm against The Human Wolf’s chest. Arcs of yellow electricity pulsated across the creature’s body, causing his fur to stand on its ends, but he seemed otherwise unaffected. Leaning back slightly, he kicked Turbine in the chest, sending him tumbling across the floor in a blur.  

Avian flew upwards in her bird form, covering The Human Wolf’s face with a barrage of super-strong punches. He barely flinched, plucking her from the air by her wings and holding her in front of his bared teeth. Chirp collided with his head like a softball, but he flicked the bird away, sending it careening backwards with a pained tweet.  

“Okay, okay,” I conceded. “I’ll tell her.” 

The creature looked at me with his white eyes, the animalistic expression somehow expectant. Avian, too, turned to me, morphing back into her human form. 

“Avian,” I began, “The Human Wolf isn’t trying to kill you. He’s trying to take you. As in, take you into his custody. He’s your father.” 

Her eyes widened. “My father is a super-villain?” 

“He wasn’t always,” I replied, shaking my head. “He was originally a victim of Black Pharaoh, back during the second World War. When I met him during the third war, I was young and impressionable, and he was wizened by his years of nigh-immortality. I saw the good in him, despite the violent, cannibalistic urges with which his alter-ego burdened him. We were together for a while, but he eventually succumbed to his addiction, opting to work with Black Pharaoh to get what he craved. His heroin, unfortunately, is carnage. And I couldn’t stay with that.” 

The Human Wolf lowered Avian to the floor before transforming back to human form, staring at me through tear-filled eyes. “You never told me you were pregnant.” 

“How could I?” I demanded. “How could I, Luca? What, were you going to take her to live with you? To become a monster, like what you chose to become?” 

“No, I understand,” he said. “But why make her live with them?”  

“I . . .” I choked back tears of my own. “I thought, if I distanced myself from her, you’d never know who she really was. You’d think she was just another Public Servant.” 

“Well, you see where that led,” he spat. “I found out anyway. And now I’ve lost over a decade with my daughter, to these military freaks. She’s no better with these soldiers-for-hire than she is with me, colorful costumes or not.” 

“Dad,” whispered Avian. 

He balked at the title. “I haven’t deserved that name, Avian.” 

“Fine. Luca.” Avian sighed. “I wish you were able to be my father. Someone I could trust, or look up to. But my mom was right in keeping me from you. I don’t agree with how she did it, but she was right. You’re dangerous. You kill people. You eat people. I may have your shifting abilities, but I won’t become you.” 

She turned to me, continuing. “But Luca is also right. The Public Servants are not a family. They serve one purpose, and I’m tired of being a part of that world. I want to come live with you, mom.” 

“Really?” My eyes widened. “After all this time?” 

Avian nodded. “Luca knows the truth now, anyway. And I think he’d rather me live with you, the mother who loves me, than with his enemies. Isn’t that right, Luca?” 

Her father nodded. “I can accept this compromise.” 

“You have to understand, Avian,” I cautioned. “I’m a slave to The Call. I see people who need my help, and I help them. I may not be a superhero, but I’m hardly better than the Public Servants.” 

“You care about me, though,” she insisted. “You want to see me thrive. You want to see me happy. Right?” 

I nodded. 

“Then train me, in your own way. A normal life is too far behind me. But I don’t have to be a symbol. I can help people privately, like you. Help me become a detective, like you.” 

Looking to Luca, I raised an eyebrow. “Is that going to be a problem?” 

He pondered for a moment before responding. “I don’t like it, but if she’s going to help people, I’d rather her do it with you at her side. We know more about the Public Servants than you might think, and they’re no better than us. You, though . . . I know who you are. You’re a good mom, even in your absence. Watch our daughter, and I’ll leave you both alone.” 

His gaze swept over the others. “No promises for your friends, though.” 

The squad of SPIs limped towards us, and Piston spoke up. “Let me just catch my breath, mate. Then, it’s round two.” 

Luca chuckled. “No, I don’t think so. Not today.” 

He returned his attention to Avian, and to me. “Keep her safe, Annelisse. If something happens to her, the same will happen to you, tenfold.” 

I scowled. “Spare me the threats, Luca. Get out of here.” 

Sighing, he turned his back to us, walking beyond the station and out of sight. 

“What do you think he meant?” Turbine asked, collapsing into a seated position on the floor. “What he said about the Public Servants.” 

“Who knows?” Cylinder replied, sitting next to him and exhaling loudly. “He’s a super-villain. Why should we trust him at all?” 

Piston joined me at my side, putting a hand on my shoulder as she spoke. 

“So . . . you fucked a wolf, then?” 


Family Values, Pt. 3 – A Silent Visitor 

The crime scene investigator’s camera flashes forced me to squint against the dimly-lit apartment interior, each bulb burst like a dagger through my eyes. Next to me, Avian surveyed the scene, arms crossed over her chest. Chirp sat on her shoulder, preening himself, seemingly oblivious to the mangled corpse on the floor in front of us. 

“Initial impact, blunt force trauma to the back of the skull,” the CSI told us. “Once Miss Landam was incapacitated, our killer carved her up with what appears to be a serrated hunting knife. He definitely took his time with her . . . looks like she succumbed to her injuries after about two hours.” 

Avian looked to me. “What do you think, mom? Is this the work of Huntsman?” 

“I’m not sure,” I admitted, crouching to examine the body. My trench coat draped across my knees, weighed down by the gadgets my Call had anticipated me needing for this case. “He seems to only operate in situations that are . . . higher profile that this. But, we know little about him, or how he operates. Still, there’s the anomaly; the reason we’re here.” 

The CSI nodded. “You’re right, Inspector. Same reports as the last few murders. Right before the moment of initial impact, neighbors reported temporary deafness. They said that all sound, quote, ‘faded away,’ only resuming after the two hours of Miss Landam’s torture had elapsed.” 

“So, we’re looking for an SPI,” Avian mused. “One who can manipulate sound, at least in the sense of making it go away when he’s near a victim.” 

I nodded. “Precisely.” 

“You know, the other officers have started giving our killer a name,” the CSI commented. “They’re calling him ‘Mr. Silent.’”  

“Well, that’s a terrible name,” Avian replied. “Why not just call him ‘Silent but Deadly?’” 

I grabbed her by the shoulder, leading her away from the scene of the crime. “I think we’re a little off-track here, chère. We have other areas to investigate.” 

We approached the nearby kitchen window, and I affixed a pair of latex gloves to my hands before sliding it open. “Look outside. Someone’s lowered the fire escape.” 

“Ah, so Mr. Silent exerted some effort to get to Landam,” mused Avian. “She wasn’t a crime of opportunity. She was his target.” 

I turned to the CSI. “What did Landam do for a living?” 

He checked his notes. “She was a nurse at Pathfinder General.” 

“Hey, that’s the same hospital Treble Clef is still holed up in,” Avian said. 

“More than that,” the CSI added. “She was one of his caretakers.” 

“What about the other victims?” I pressed. 

The CSI shook his head. “I’d have to check our files, but I don’t think any of them worked at the hospital.” 

“So, it might be a coincidence,” I muttered. “But we have a sound-manipulating villain who’s targeted at least one person connected to a popular sound-manipulating hero. I sense a wannabe arch-nemesis in the making.” 

“What should we do?” Avian asked. 

I smiled down at her. “We deploy the most effective tool in a detective’s arsenal . . . a simple conversation with an old friend.” 

________________ 

I’d never tell Avian, but hospitals terrify me. 

Right after the bombs went off and the Great War of 2022 began, I’d attempted to use my Call to keep others safe. The wrong people in power heard about me, and they abducted me, committing me to a psychiatric ward for several months before they realized my powers were true. After that, I became a cog in their war machine, under the promise that I’d never have to return to that sterile, white hell. Ever since, I found it difficult to step inside hospitals . . . which, unfortunately, is more common than I’d expected in my line of work. 

Still, we had a job to do. 

Avian guided me through the hallways, taking me up to the third floor of the building. We approached a room at the end of the corridor whose entrance was blocked by two tall figures in suits and sunglasses; one man, and one woman. As we closed the gap between us and them, they held out their hands to stop us. 

“Only authorized staff are–” began the man, before pausing at the sight of my daughter. “Miss Avian, is that you? I almost didn’t recognize you without your costume.” 

“Hey Tom,” Avian responded, nodding to him. Turning to the woman, she asked, “How are the kids, Nancy?” 

Nancy shrugged. “Terrible, as always. Cheryl’s one more broken plate away from going postal, I think.” 

Avian chuckled. “Tell your wife I said hi. We need to catch up sometime.” 

Tom cleared his throat. “Miss, did you want to talk to Treble Clef? I can’t bring unauthorized–” 

“What, you don’t see the resemblance?” Avian interrupted, gesturing to me. “This is my mom.” 

I smiled politely, extending a hand. “My name’s Annelisse.” 

They both stared at me, unmoving, and I awkwardly retracted the greeting, glancing down at Avian. 

“Mom’s a detective,” Avian continued. “She’s helping me become one, too. We think Treble Clef is being targeted by a serial killer who can manipulate sound, like him. It’s important we talk to him.” 

Sighing, Tom and Nancy nodded to each other, parting to let us through. We quietly pushed open the door, entering a room devoid of much furniture beyond a wall-mounted television and a small hospital bed. In the bed lay a white, blonde-haired man with a slender build, his face and arms covered in cuts, burns, and bruises. He glanced at us with piercing blue eyes, and broke into a grin at the sight of Avian. 

“Hey there!” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “I was wondering when you’d come see me. I heard you left the Public Servants.” 

“Yeah.” She walked up to his bedside, sitting at the foot of it. “I’m just going in a different direction now.” 

“Good.” Treble Clef offered her a tight smile. “We’ll miss you, of course. But it’s important that you find what makes you feel fulfilled and happy.” 

His eyes drifted up to meet mine. “The Inspector, right? I know some of my colleagues have crossed paths with you before. So, you’re her family. Her real family.” 

He chuckled. “Some people would kill for that opportunity.” 

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said. “I wish it was under better circumstances.” 

“Peter,” Avian asked, “do you know a nurse with the last name Landam?” 

Treble Clef furrowed his brows, glancing back and forth between the two of us. “Nurse Landam? Yeah, she’s been one of the night nurses in charge of my care while I recover. Did something happen to her? She didn’t come in last night.” 

I grimaced. “Sir, she was killed in her apartment last night. We think the culprit is an SPI with abilities similar to yours.” 

“The police are calling him Mr. Silent,” Avian added. 

“Oh boy,” groaned Treble Clef. “That’s not a great name.” 

I snorted quietly. “She said the same.” 

“Great minds think alike,” he muttered, lying back against his pillow. “How can I help?” 

I reached into my trench coat, producing a manila folder. Opening it, I handed to him, revealing a thin stack of photographs within. He flipped through them, pausing to examine each one.  

“Are these Mr. Silent’s other victims?” he asked. 

“They are.” I nodded. “Do you recognize any of them? From the hospital, or from your personal life?” 

He shook his head, setting the folder down on his lap. “I’m sorry, but I don’t. At least, not that I remember.” 

Avian patted him on the leg. “That’s okay, Peter. Maybe you can help us a different way.” 

“How so?” he inquired, cocking his head curiously. 

“Mr. Silent,” I said. “He has the ability to suck away the sound in a localized area for extended periods of time while he tortures his victims. I know it’s sometimes hard to define the physics behind SPI abilities, but as an expert in the field, how do you think his powers work?” 

“Hmm . . .” he pondered for a moment before speaking again. “Well, the easiest answer would be that he’s capable of producing a very unique ultrasound frequency.” 

“Really?” I asked. “He’s making a sound of his own?” 

“Yes,” Treble Clef replied. “But, it’s not a normal sound. This one likely produces vibrational waves that oppose the waves naturally produced in a city environment.” 

“Wait, what?” Avian rubbed her temples. “I’ve got a C in Physics.” 

The Call tugged at my mind, and I chuckled. “Here you go.” 

Reaching out, I dropped a small water bottle into Treble Clef’s lap. He picked it up, opened it, and took a long gulp, until about half of its contents remained. Screwing the cap back on, he held the bottle on its side, gripping the bottom with one hand. The water inside sloshed back and forth before growing still. 

“Step into my world for a moment,” he said.  

A low hum radiated from the hand holding the bottle, and his fingertips vibrated. The water within the bottle began to generate an endless cycle of small, equidistant waves, like an oceanic microcosm. Avian leaned forward, watching the movements in fascination. 

“Now, what you’re seeing are the city sounds,” Treble Clef continued. “Cars passing, doors slamming, dogs barking. They create waves through the air and along surfaces, waves which are invisible to our eyes but interpretable by our ears.” 

He raised his other hand, placing a fingertip on the opposite side of the bottle. “Now, imagine that I am Mr. Silent.” 

The new fingertip also vibrated, sending a ripple in the opposite direction that flattened the waves instantly. Though the water trembled, the surface remained a smooth plane, more still than before he’d ever touched it. 

“You . . . you stopped it,” Avian commented. “You turned off the city sounds.” 

“Not quite,” corrected Treble Clef. “As you see, I haven’t eliminated anything. I’m still creating the original sound waves. But I have also introduced a new sound: An equal, opposite series of waves which stifle the original ones.” 

Avian’s eyes widened as realization dawned on her. “So what you’re saying is, we shouldn’t be searching for silence. We should be searching for the frequency he’s using to emulate silence.” 

Treble Clef’s fingers stopped vibrating, and he dropped the bottle back into his lap. “Bingo.” 

“Thank you for your help, Treble Clef,” I said. “I’m happy to see my daughter was in inspirational hands during my absence.” 

He nodded. “Any time, Inspector.” 

Avian and I turned to leave the hospital room, and Avian whispered to me, “What the hell is a bingo?” 

________________ 

Back at the office, I laid a paper map across my desk, flattening the corners with old coffee cups. Avian circled the desk, examining its contents closely.  

“So,” she said, “they still make paper ones, huh?” 

“Normally, I’d share your opinion,” I replied. “Back in my childhood, before Apple dissolved, they used to make mobile computers. I’d use one for digital maps all the time. But sometimes, you need a bigger perspective, and that’s where analog observations come into play.” 

Leaning over, I retrieved a marker, uncapping it with my teeth and marking the location of each Mr. Silent murder with a small red circle. Once I’d completed my additions, I stepped back, surveying the map with my daughter. 

“New General City is a big, big place,” I continued. “Look at the murders, though. They’re clustered mostly in the Midwest. This is the hunting ground, where Mr. Silent likely lives or works.” 

I applied the marker to the map once more, adding dates above each circle. 

“Now, we can see a timeline.”  

Avian squinted her eyes. “Look at that. The murders, they’re drifting further Southeast.” 

“That’s what I thought, too,” I mused. “But, look at this.” 

I tapped my finger on the symbol for Pathfinder General. 

“What you’re seeing as a trend moving Southeast is a red herring. Nurse Landam works at Pathfinder.” 

Avian cocked her head. “And Cassian Chips lived in the same apartment building as May Fitz, but his body was found at an abandoned warehouse rather than his home, like the others.” 

“We already know Landam was an outlier,” I said. “Likely a connector to something at Treble Clef’s hospital. But as far as we know, Fitz was one of the first victims . . . which means Mr. Silent was sloppier. He made himself identifiable in some way during the murder, doing something that Chips saw at home. Rather than reveal this, Mr. Silent took Chips to a separate location to intentionally water down the crime scenes.” 

Snatching the marker from my hand, Avian sat on the desk, crossing out the circles for Landam and Chips. “Look, mom. Once you remove those two murders, the intentional ones, the rest form a sort of concentric circle pattern.” 

I smiled at my daughter. “Good work. Since he knows how to obfuscate a crime scene map, we should first look for businesses he might work that would employ someone with knowledge in the field. Law offices, police stations, emergency dispatch centers . . .” 

“Whoa.” Avian drew my attention to a marker in the middle of the bodies. “What about my old home?” 

My eyes widened as I read the name: PUBLIC SERVANTS HEADQUARTERS. 

________________ 

“Thanks, Piston,” I said into my cell phone. “I’ll wait for your text.” 

I ended the call, leaning back in the driver’s seat of my rental car. Avian sat next to me, peering past the passenger’s side window and into the alley where we were parked. 

“She said her tech guy is going to run a sonic map of this area,” I explained to my daughter. “Based on the direction of the concentric circles and the date range between murders, we should expect the next murder to occur within twenty-four hours, somewhere in the next few square blocks. Piston’s scans of such a narrow space will give us instant access to the source of Mr. Silent’s noise-cancelling frequency, and we can stop him before his next crime.” 

“How is her tech guy going to map out the area?” Avian asked. 

“Something about ambient data collection,” I muttered.  

“What?” She spun to look at me. “You know that means monitoring computer and phone microphones illegally, right?” 

“I do,” I said. “And as much as I’d like to think such a concept was not possible, I have faith that all we’re listening for is a subsonic frequency. Not any personal data that those computer and phone manufacturers already collect.” 

Avian huffed, rolling her eyes. “If I see my cloud photos leaked online, I’m gonna be pissed.” 

“I don’t think that– wait.” I glanced at her. “What’s on those photos?” 

Before she could respond, my phone lit up with a text from Piston: ACTIVE SIGNAL. LIGHTFOOT APARTMENTS. 

“We may be too late,” I whispered, unholstering my Walther and chambering a hollow-point round. 

“Did The Call tell you you’d need that tonight?” Avian asked, gesturing to my gun.  

“No,” I replied. “Common sense did.” 

We burst from the car, sprinting out of the alley and angling towards the Lightfoot apartment complex. As we approached, I felt my ears ring, the sensation steadily growing in pitch and volume with each footstep. Glancing at my daughter, I saw her try to clear her ears, but her efforts seem in vain. 

We’re in the radius of his powers, I thought. Hopefully we have time to stop him before someone else suffers. 

As the thought entered my consciousness, the world around us fell silent. 

Overhead, through the wall of windows which composed our view into the Lightfoot Apartments, I saw a lamp fall away from the pane of a third-story unit, casting elongated shadows into an otherwise motionless room. I made eye contact with Avian, who nodded, darting ahead of me and body-slamming the door to the building. It exploded from its hinges without even a whisper, silently crashing into the hallway between units. 

I joined her, twisting open the knob to the stairwell and hurrying up the steps. Avian, however, shifted into her bird form, taking flight with Chirp so that she reached the third-floor landing in a split-second. I sighed, my voice muffled by Mr. Silent, and tried to pick up the pace as my daughter left the stairwell ahead of me. By the time I reached the landing myself, I found myself slightly out of breath, but I pressed forward, sliding into the third-floor hallway. 

In the shadows of the hall, I saw one door slightly ajar, distorted light leaking from within. I rushed to the door, shouldering it open to find Avian standing a few feet inside, arms crossed. On the floor lay an old man, blood gushing from a horizontal slash across his throat. Dropping to my knees, I retrieved a gauze roll from my coat pocket, tightly winding it around the man’s throat until blood stopped leaking through the layers. Taping the bandage together, I helped the man sit up a little, and he spat out the blood he hadn’t yet swallowed, spraying his carpet red.  

In my peripheral vision, Avian scoured the apartment interior, hunting for signs of Mr. Silent. Glancing at the window, I noted it remained closed, locked from the inside. Releasing the old man, I gripped my Walther tightly, swiveling around the room. 

He’s still here. 

I felt a faint gust of wind ruffle my hair, and I reflexively shifted into cat form, shrinking below an attack from behind. My feline body spun around, pausing to absorb the details of the person who’d snuck up on me. He was tall and slender, his body obscured by a black suit, black trench coat, and black fedora, ironically giving him the impression of a gothic private detective. His face, however, was covered in a white mask, devoid of any features besides a line of black stitches where the mouth should have been.  

Hello, Mr. Silent. 

He seemed surprised by my transformation, but reacted quickly regardless; dropping to one knee, he whipped the point of his serrated hunting knife at my head. I dashed away, running between his legs as his blade buried into the carpet. As I shifted back, I spun on my heels, taking aim with my Walther . . . 

But Mr. Silent no longer stood in my field of vision. Instead, he’d already made his way to the window, and as I adjusted my aim, he used an elbow to shatter the glass. Before he could exit, though, Avian flew into view, tackling him while in her bird form. Her enhanced strength sent him flying across the apartment, and he collided with the wall, leaving a dent in the plaster. I opened fire into his chest as he slid to the floor, the absolute silence an alien juxtaposition with the recoil I experienced from the Walther. The bullets, however, seemed to bounce away from a shimmering field that enveloped the masked man, and he returned to his feet, looking at me. 

Great. Now I just made him mad. 

He rushed at me, knife at the ready, but Avian intercepted, roundhouse-kicking him sideways. He crashed through the window, soaring into the night air before dropping into darkness. I ran to the window, looking down, but as I registered no bodies on the grass below, a hum washed across me, announcing the return of the city’s sounds.  

“Where did he go?” Avian said, her voice harsh against my now-sensitive ears. “No way he already recovered from a fall like that.” 

I retrieved my cell phone, dialing the emergency number. “Hello, this is Inspector Annelisse Monet. We have an attempted murder at the Lightfoot Apartments, room number . . .”  

Craning my neck, I read the brass plate on the front door. “Three-oh-six.” 

Something caught my eye in the grass below, and paused. “I’ll stay on the call, but I have to step away for a second. Please send medical assistance immediately.” 

Setting the phone down, I gestured for my daughter’s attention. “Avian. Let’s take the direct route outside.” 

Morphing into her bird form again, she wrapped her legs around my waist, and together, we glided out the window, landing on the ground outside the apartment building. As soon as she released me, I retrieved a small tuning fork from a coat pocket, holding it out. 

“What’s that for?” Avian asked. 

I shrugged, slowly crouching. “Not sure yet.” 

The tuning fork began to vibrate in my hand, almost imperceptible at first, but growing in violence as I brought the device closer to the grass. Waving it back and forth, I felt the vibrations wax and wane, and I paused at its peak intensity, examining the ground below. I dropped onto my belly, trying to place the grass horizontally in my view. A line of foliage stretched before me, the blades trembling uncontrollably in a straight path leading away from the scene. 

“Well, would you look at that,” I commented.  

Avian dropped down next to me. “Son of a bitch.” 

“Grab your phone,” I instructed. “I suspect we’ll need a little extra help.” 

________________ 

Avian, Piston, Turbine and I stomped down the hallway of Pathfinder General, ignoring surprised glances from the medical staff as we approached Treble Clef’s hospital room. At the other end of the corridor stood Tom and Nancy, who waved amicably at the sight of Avian and myself. I glanced to Turbine, who frowned in their direction.  

“What is it?” I whispered. “What do you sense?” 

He shook his head. “I’m not sure. But something is off.” 

“Hey Tom! Hey Nancy!” called Avian as we closed the gap between ourselves and Treble Clef’s security guards. “Does Peter have a moment to talk again?” 

“I’m afraid he’s not feeling too well,” Tom apologized. “I can check in with him in a bit and schedule a–” 

His stopped mid-sentence, furrowing his brows at Turbine. “You got a problem? Why are you staring at me?” 

Turbine tilted his head. “How old are you?” 

“I’m forty-five, rude-ass,” the guard replied. “Old enough to know not to ask questions like that.” 

“Forty-five?” Turbine slowly backed away. “Why do you have the bioelectric aura of a toddler?” 

Tom and Nancy simultaneously drew their pistols, opening fire at Piston and Turbine. Avian dove in front of them, morphing into her durable bird form to absorb most of the bullets’ damage. Still, the barrage knocked her to the floor, and she wheezed on the ground as the projectiles pushed out of her rapidly-healing chest.  

The guards shifted their aim, but Chirp swooped up from Avian’s prone body, batting the firearms from both of their hands. As he carried their weapons away, Piston darted forward, lashing out with a front-kick into Tom’s chest. The blow propelled him backwards, through the closed door and into Treble Clef’s hospital room. Nancy spun in a circle, retrieving what appeared to be a railroad spike from inside her suit jacket and burying it into Piston’s right shoulder. Piston screamed, stumbling back, but Nancy retained a tight grip on the spike, now dripping in blood. 

“Peter is resting right now,” Nancy said, her voice suddenly monotone. “Please come back at a later time.” 

“Not a chance,” I retorted, drawing my Walther and opening fire. 

To my surprise, Nancy danced around the gunshots, twisting and flexing her body in a way that left her unharmed as she rushed in my direction, railroad spike raised. Turbine tried to stop her approach, but Tom reappeared, wielding a mallet, and collided with him. Nancy dove at me, spike extended, but I shrank into cat form, launching myself at her face. My claws dug into skin, but she batted me away from her head with inhuman speed and strength, sending me tumbling across the hospital floor and back into my human form.  

“Mom!” I heard Avian cry, and turned to see the girl leapt into the fray, side-kicking Nancy against the wall. Behind her, Piston and Turbine engaged with Tom, who kept them at bay with heavy swings from his mallet. As I returned to my feet, I caught a glimpse of the cuts I’d left in Nancy’s face, and paused. 

No blood leaked from her wounds. 

Instead, the skin pulled away in pieces like a rubber mask, revealing something pale-white beneath. I watched Avian strike the woman across the face, and some kind of contact lens flew from her eye, revealing beady blackness inside the socket.  

“What are you?” I asked her as she struggled against my daughter, who’d pinned her against the wall. “You certainly aren’t human.” 

“Human?” I heard a voice reply, and turned to see Treble Clef exit his room, dressed in loose-fitting scrubs and a hospital gown. “They’re as human as I am. You two, come to me.” 

Tom and Nancy instantly relaxed, dropping their weapons and shambling over to the Public Servant. As they took their place on either side of them, he raised his hands, patting them on the head.  

“After all, they are my children.” 

His hands vibrated, and their heads exploded, bursting like dropped watermelons. Blood sprayed across the white floors and walls, and the decapitated corpses crumpled to the ground. 

I took aim with my Walther while Avian, Chirp, Piston and Turbine formed a circle around Treble Clef. He made no sudden moves, smiling at the squad. 

“What brought you back to me?” he inquired, glancing at me. 

“We had an encounter with Mr. Silent last night,” I responded, keeping my gun trained. “He made a pretty quick getaway, I noticed.” 

Too quick,” added Avian. “He used sonic leylines, to travel at high speeds.” 

Treble Clef feigned shock, gently touching his chest. “But I use sonic leylines. Are you accusing me of being a serial killer?” 

“We thought it possible, or even probable,” I said. “But, there’s the matter of the pattern. You’re fast, but not that fast. The pattern of regular murders followed concentric circles branching out from the Public Servants headquarters. No, I think the only people you killed were Nurse Landam and Cassian Chips. Likely to cover the tracks of someone else. Someone with the same powers as you.” 

Piston gestured at the headless guards on the floor. “Another child, perhaps?” 

Sighing, Treble Clef crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the door frame. “A child, of sorts. Where I come from, biomedical technology has far surpassed what exists in New General City, even from before the Great War. Gene editing, biomechanical integration, even cloning.” 

“These are clones?” Turbine asked. “They don’t look like you.” 

I crouched, tugging at the tan rubber which hid something paler beneath Nancy’s neck stump. “I get the feeling that you don’t look like you, either. Am I right, Peter?” 

He smiled wider, gesturing to his face. “If I may?” 

I nodded. “Slowly.” 

Slipping his fingers into a slit in the skin of his neck, he peeled away a rubbery outer layer, exposing a bleached-white face, thin, red lips, and beady, black eyes. I saw my daughter balk, and he winked at her, dropping the mask.  

“What happened to you?” Avian asked. 

“Oh, nothing,” he replied in a sing-song voice. “Life in The Underneath, I suppose.” 

I narrowed my eyes. “The what?” 

“My home,” he explained. “See, where I’m from, we’ve advanced so much technologically, it would blow your little minds. Early on, we learned how to use our cells to create meat-puppets, mindless clones with enhanced physical abilities designed to do our every bidding.” 

“Like Tom and Nancy,” Avian muttered. “Or, these things you used to replace Tom and Nancy.” 

“Yes.” Treble Clef chuckled. “How do you think we made the original Public Servants, before the bombs’ radiation had infected the world? They weren’t born. They were built. Utilizing the same technology the leaders of The Underneath had been using for years.” 

“What does that have to do with these murders?” pressed Piston, and Chirp twittered in apparent agreement. 

“Well, there’s a reason our technology focuses on the biomedical,” Treble Clef admitted. “In The Underneath, my people deteriorate psychologically with age. It’s inevitable, and quite difficult to avoid.” 

“Unless you could treat yourself with stem cells,” I interjected. “Stem cells from someone with the same genetic makeup as you.” 

“What, so you’re growing clones of yourself to make your own Lithium?” Turbine exclaimed in incredulity. 

Piston inched closer to Treble Clef. “Seems that way, mate.” 

I saw realization glimmer behind my daughter’s eyes, and she glared at the Public Servant. “Except this new clone, the one you grew a few weeks ago. He accidentally inherited the powers you gave yourself when you became a Public Servant.” 

Treble Clef sighed. “The cloning process was too unstable, the result of my Tom and Nancy clones working on my behalf while I lay unconscious in the hospital. He developed too quickly into an older variation of myself, without the stem cell treatments to hold back his insanity, and without the genetic dampening which normally suppresses their sonic powers. I was sloppy, and many people have lost their lives because of it.” 

“Why are you telling us all of this?” Turbine said. “You know how this makes you look, after all these years as the Public Servants’ golden boy.” 

“Because,” he said, gesturing behind us, “I was waiting for Mr. Silent. He and I don’t plan on leaving behind any witnesses.” 

We spun around to see the black-clad man in the white mask approaching from the other end of the hallway, knife in hand. I glanced back to see Treble Clef grinning wildly now, both hands raised . . . 

. . . but, as a few seconds passed, nothing happened. 

Frowning, Treble Clef looked at his hands. “What? Why aren’t my powers working?” 

“You gave us the idea yourself,” Avian commented, holding up a small remote. “Using one wavelength to counter another. In this circumstance, we made one that counters the wavelengths your powers fall within. That’s what’s playing over the hospital intercom right now. We were just waiting for your buddy to show.” 

“You didn’t think the Public Servants kept extensive files on their own members?” scoffed Piston. “We know everything about the experiments that made you like this.” 

“But . . . how?” he started to back away, panicking. “You aren’t Public Servants. Not even Avian, anymore.” 

Behind me, I heard rapid footsteps as Mr. Silent approached. I turned to see him inches from me, knife raised, but a gunshot resounded, and something whizzed over my shoulder. A red hole appeared in the center of Mr. Silent’s mask as the back of his skull burst away, and he tumbled to the floor, sliding to a stop in a pool of his own blood. Startled, I spun to see Piston with her arm outstretched, smoking 1911 in hand. 

“This isn’t what we discussed,” I hissed at her, but she ignored me, addressing Treble Clef instead. 

“That’s where you’re wrong, mate. Turbine and I are just as much Public Servants as you are. We’re just the blokes that no one knows about. Or, at least, no one wants to know about.” 

She took aim at his head. 

“Sterling Silver is very disappointed in you, Peter. You and your glorified blow-up-dolls have been making a mess of New General City, and now we’ve gotta clean it up. But first, one more mess.” 

He turned to run, but she fired again, the bullet penetrating his temple and dropping him instantly. 

Silence fell across the hospital, and in the distance, I heard police sirens approach. 

“What the fuck was that?” I cried, storming towards Piston and Turbine. In the corner of my eye, Avian remained still, her mouth agape in disbelief. 

“Sorry, mate,” Piston apologized. “I know you’re here to solve a crime, but that’s not our job. It’s like you said when we first met . . . I just do the Public Servants’ dirty work.” 

“Don’t worry,” Turbine added. “We’ve already got people sweeping his lab back at the headquarters. If he’s left behind anything dangerous, we’ll dispose of it.” 

“And this? I extended my arms, gesturing at the carnage. “How will you explain this?” 

He reached beneath his shirt, producing a small, black box. “Best I can sense, our little fight triggered a hospital-wide evacuation. Seems like a great time to avoid casualties if, say, the person who blew up The Living Mortar’s home came back to finish the job with Treble Clef.” 

Tossing the box into Treble Clef’s room, he held up a small remote with his free hand. “Better get out of here, ma’am.” 

I glared at him, shifting my eyes to meet Piston’s. “I know that Avian and I can’t stop this. I’m not even sure we should stop this. But you manipulated me, and you took this far further than I would have ever agreed to, especially with my daughter here. I don’t ever want to see you again. Consider my investigative services beyond your reach.” 

Piston sighed. “That’s fair, Inspector. We’ll go our separate ways, then. Best of luck on your journey with Avian.” 

I spun on my heels, grabbing Avian by the hand and pulling her away from them. Chirp fluttered behind us, twittering somberly. My daughter looked at me, eyes wide and glassy. 

“What do we do, mom? How do we make this right?” 

Shaking my head, I replied, “We can’t. This is too beyond us.” 

I felt The Call tug at me, ever-present in the back of my mind, but as I gazed back at my traumatized daughter, I responded differently for the first time in my life: This time, I ignored it. 

“In fact, I think it’s time you and I went on a long, long vacation.” 

“Really?” excitement trickled into her voice. “I’ve never had a vacation before. Where should we go?” 

The Call faded, and I released a breath that I felt like I’d been holding since my childhood. Sensations flooded in its place; memories of cobblestone streets, of baked bread and sweet flowers, of smiling faces and jovial conversations. A warm smile crept across my face, and I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye. 

“I know just the place, chère. How’s your French?” 

Phase VI — Welcome to New General City

Prelude – Welcome to New General City 

Welcome to New General City, America’s first self-sustaining metropolis! 

After the Great War of 2022 left the coastal and border states uninhabitable, our nation’s most brilliant minds built New General City in the very center of the country. 

Now, it’s home to all of America’s legal citizens! 

And if you’re worried about undesirables in the city stealing, killing, and causing a commotion, no need to fear! 

Thanks to the Public Servants, New General City’s very own team of super-powered heroes, our crime rates are the lowest they’ve ever been! 

Interested in being part of our community?  

Just take your City Certification Exam, provide your qualifications for the career of your choice, and swear an oath to uphold our fine ordinances. 

It’s as easy as one, two, three! 

In fact, let’s hear from one of our newest citizens . . . 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 1 – Trigger Discipline 

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. 

In addition to Sterling Silver’s general ability to woo the public, they also stood as a representative of the super-powered LGBTQ community. 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. 

Silence. 

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. 

“Holy shit.” 

________________ 

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. 

Self-destruct feature. 

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?” 

I nodded. 

“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. 

“Hey, Turbine.” 

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. 

Click. 

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. 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 2 – Safety in Numbers 

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. 

Spectral Man. 

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. 

“Our turn.” 

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. 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 3 – Out After Curfew 

Piston’s shotgun blasts echoed throughout the cave as she released its contents into the descending horde of white-robed vampires. The slugs tore holes in the creatures’ torsos, knocking them away from us. As they landed around us, though, they scrambled back to their feet, the wounds rapidly closing. 

“Uh . . .” I said as they rushed toward us. “I don’t have any crosses or holy water.” 

The first vampire reached us, but Textile intercepted it, swinging his katana. 

“That stuff’s all a myth perpetuated by the Catholic Church in an attempt to stay relevant,” he explained as he fought the creature. “Vampirism is a DNA-altering mutation triggered by a venom produced in Vampire King’s mouth. Vampires are just another type of SPI. They’re fast, resilient and stealthy, but they have one major weakness.” 

As if to demonstrate, he rolled across the ground, swinging his blade in a horizontal arc. The razor-sharp edge sliced cleanly through skin, muscle and bone, and blood spurted from the vampire’s severed leg stumps as it dropped to its hands and knees, hissing. Textile followed up with a stab into the back, running the blade completely through the other side, where the creature’s heart should be. Almost instantly, the vampire’s flesh and organs liquified into a crimson fluid, leaving behind a skeleton that crumpled to the cave floor. 

“The heart,” Textile continued, flicking the blood from his katana and swinging the weapon at the next attacker. “You destroy the brain, cut off the limbs, nothing. Their sensory input, neural processing, even cell integrity, it’s all held together in an organ that develops around where the heart once was.” 

Nearby, I saw Piston taking careful shots with her shotgun, tearing holes into the vampire’s upper torso with enough accuracy to clip their hearts and melt them. As she paused to reload, one of the vampires pounced, but Cylinder intervened, driving his Bowie knife into its chest and reducing it to a wet skeleton. Piston snapped her next magazine into place, continuing her onslaught. 

I rushed forward, clenching my fists, and swung my arm at an incoming vampire. It easily dodged my attack, its yellow eyes darting rapidly as if it were processing my attempts as they happened. I lashed out at its shins with my boot, trying to trip it up, but it, gracefully hopped beneath my strike, kicking me in the stomach. Sliding backwards, I assumed a new fighting stance, trying to catch my breath as the sharp pain dissipated. 

The vampire circled me, hissing, and I sensed another rushing me from behind. At the last moment, I crouched, allowing the would-be ambusher to fly over my head. As it arced through the air, I struck the palm of my hand against its heart, flooding the spot with electricity. It landed on its face, spasming on the cave floor, and I saw blood begin to bead on its skin like sweat. After a few seconds, I heard it emit a final gasp as it melted away, leaving behind a fanged skeleton. 

Turning to the first vampire, I offered a half-shrug. “You want to be next?” 

The vampire smiled, its fangs glistening in Piston’s flare light. “Boy, I’ve been killing people like you for over two centuries. You think today is the day I die?” 

I gestured at the skeleton on the ground between us. “I mean, it was his. Why not yours?” 

The vampire hissed at me, dropping to all fours and darting at my legs. I tried to get out of the way, but its shoulder caught my knees, and I flipped to the rocky floor, landing on my stomach. Rolling onto my back, I saw the vampire scrambling frantically toward me. I steeled myself, but as it drew within striking distance, a short sword twirled through the air, embedding in the creature’s skull. The vampire hissed, backing away. 

“Grab my wakizashi!” I heard Textile call nearby. “Go for the heart.” 

I leapt to my feet, grabbing the handle of the wakizashi and jerking it out of the vampire’s head. Blood trickled from an already-healing wound as the creature swiped at me. I narrowly dodged the attack, instinctively retaliating with a swing of the blade. The edge caught the vampire’s neck, chopping about halfway through. Blood spurted from the wound, and I pulled back, swinging again. This time, the wakizashi severed the spinal cord, and the vampire’s head flew from its body. 

Pausing to catch my breath, I let my arms fall to my side, watching the headless corpse stumble around. It didn’t fall, however; instead, the vampire’s body straightened up, gurgling through a bloody stump. Some kind of wormlike proboscis rose up from the severed neck, tilting toward me to reveal nothing at the end but a giant mouth ringed with rows of jagged teeth. 

Oh, shit, I thought. 

“He did say the heart, man,” Cylinder called, struggling with two vampires at once as he stabbed them with his Bowie knife. 

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, readying the wakizashi. 

The worm-headed vampire snapped its mouth at me hungrily, sprinting in my direction. I concentrated my senses on its bioelectric aura, using the subtle changes in its tensing muscles to anticipate the direction of its attack. When it was within range, the proboscis lunged forward, aiming for my face. At the last second, I ducked, skewering the vampire in the heart with Textile’s blade. The creature shuddered, then melted away, and I returned to my feet as its bones collapsed. 

As I stared down at the blood-soaked wakizashi, shivering, I realized that the gunfire had ceased. Looking up, I saw that the rest of my team were cleaning their weapons, surrounded by blood and bones. 

Taking a deep breath, I walked over to Textile, handing him his short sword. “Thanks.” 

“No problem,” he responded. 

I looked around. “Where’s your main sword?” 

“Oh, that?” he turned to the side, revealing a blood-soaked vampire pinned to the cave floor by the neck with his katana. “I’m using it for something.” 

I spied Cylinder returning his Bowie knife to a holster on his belt. “Hey. Why didn’t you use your guns? I thought that was your thing?” 

Cylinder glanced at me. “What am I, made of bullets?” 

Piston walked over to the vampire, crouching near its head. “How you feelin’, mate?” 

The vampire hissed, shifting its yellow eyes away from her face. 

“Well, let me tell you how I’m feeling,” Piston continued, pulling out her 1911. “I’m feeling like I came here to save some kids from being turned into sex slaves. But, lo and behold, I run into a chapter of The Last Patriots in a cave below the city.” 

“Who are The Last Patriots?” I whispered to Textile. 

“Klansmen,” he explained. “Vampire King has been around for a very long time, turning ideal candidates into his minions. Religious extremists, conscienceless warriors, criminal masterminds. He has vampiric knights, samurai, mafiosos, and this group, The Last Patriots. They’re a bunch of former Confederate soldiers who dedicated their lives to the Ku Klux Klan. Turns out, their lives were much longer than they expected.” 

“So,” Piston said, pressing her 1911 against the vampire’s heart, “I find myself asking, ‘Why would Vampire King give a shit about child prostitution?’ I hear you blokes lose your junk during the transformation process anyway.” 

The vampire scoffed, looking away. 

“Not feeling chatty?” Piston asked. “That’s fine. We’ll just take you outside and let you tan for a while. That won’t kill you, right? It’ll just hurt really, really bad.” 

The creature’s eyes widened, and it opened its mouth, coughing through a blood-filled throat. “Wait! Wait. Let me go, and I’ll talk.” 

Piston shrugged. “Sure. We can do that.” 

Sighing, the vampire closed its eyes. “Okay. Okay.” 

Piston stood, crossing her arms expectantly. 

“The sex trafficking and pornography are just a front,” the vampire began. “A way to make ends meet while covering our tracks. Until you four broke into here, no one knew there was any vampiric involvement.” 

“What’s the real point, then?” Textile pressed. 

“Assassins,” the vampire answered. “We need small, disposable bodies who can get into secure places and remove our enemies. We aren’t going to sacrifice any of our own people, and with them being so young, the sex work breaks their spirit and makes them more . . . obedient.” 

Cylinder turned away from the conversation, his face contorted in disgust. I felt my stomach churn. 

Prostitutes and killers. Everything people like The Last Patriots accuse us of being . . . it’s nothing more than what they turned us into themselves. 

Piston’s flare began to fade, and she retrieved a new one from her belt, igniting it. “Thanks for the info. Keep the lights on for us, will you?” 

The vampire parted its lips to respond, and she shoved the flare into its mouth, ramming the flaming object down its throat. Flames erupted from the opening, and the vampire’s eyes widened as it screeched in pain. The skin around its face and neck began to blacken, and it frantically scrambled to pull the katana from the stone. Textile, however, seemed to have embedded the blade deep, because the only thing the creature accomplished was to slice up its own fingers. 

While the vampire thrashed, wailing, Piston turned to me. “Where are the kids?” 

I closed my eyes, focusing beyond the vampire’s cries. “Ahead, about fifteen yards.” 

“Then let’s move. This has gone on long enough.” Piston moved forward, cradling her shotgun in her arms. 

As we passed the makeshift pyre, I turned to Textile. “Will that kill it?” 

He looked at me. “Nope.” 

Without adding any other details, he strode past me, palming his wakizashi. 

We ventured further into the cave, eventually rounding a corner that branched out into a dozen dark tunnels. I tried scanning the corridors to determine their length, but they stretched beyond my senses’ capabilities. Instead, I directed the others toward tunnel number four, where we soon found another metal door embedded in the stone. 

“What’s waiting for us?” Piston whispered, readying her shotgun. 

I closed my eyes, placing my hands on the door. “Nine vampires. Twenty-three children. They’re all here.” 

“Are they armed?” Cylinder asked. 

I focused on the position of their bodies. “I think so. Rifles, maybe?” 

Cylinder rested his hands on the handles of his revolvers. “How big is the room?” 

“Not big,” I replied. “Maybe a large storage room? I think they’re holed up in here because they heard the shooting.” 

Cylinder and Piston traded glances. 

“Okay, let’s go inside,” Piston said. 

“What?” I hissed. “You’re crazy!” 

She winked at me. “Trust me, mate. This isn’t our first rodeo.” 

They all began to remove their weapons, placing them on the ground outside the door. Cylinder, too, unholstered his revolvers, but as he moved toward the others, I noticed the guns had disappeared from his hands. I blinked in surprise, but decided not to question it. 

Reaching out, Piston rapped sharply on the door three times. Her knuckles created a hollow echo as the sound waves traveled outward, spreading from metal to rock, bouncing off the cave walls. Glancing at us, she held her hands behind her head, and we followed suit. 

I heard a grinding noise, and the metal door slowly opened, revealing a tall, white-robed vampire holding a shotgun. It looked at us, then at the weapons on the floor, grinning. 

“Here to surrender?” 

Piston sighed. “We don’t want anything to happen to the kids. I’m proposing an exchange. Us for them. Imagine, bringing some SPIs to Vampire King.” 

The vampire seemed to consider her words. After a moment, it nodded, stepping to the side. 

“Okay. Let’s talk.” 

Piston led the way into the room, followed by Textile, Cylinder, and myself, all the while keeping our hands behind our heads. As we entered, I saw a mass of small children sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, bearing distant, somber expressions and covered in ragged, threadbare clothing. Surrounding them stood eight more white-robed vampires, holding old-looking shotguns and carbine rifles. When they saw us, they turned and trained their weapons on us. 

The vampire who’d answered the door closed it behind us, and I heard a latch click into place. The room darkened, but dim fluorescents embedded in the rock overhead kept everyone visible. I heard a sniffle, and glanced down to see one of the little girls in the front of the group wiping away tears, her hand absently rubbing bloody, skinned knees. 

The first vampire circled us, a sly smile spreading across its face. “Now that you’re in here, what leverage were you expecting to have?” 

I felt my heart pound in my chest, and sweat formed above my domino mask, despite the cave’s cool climate. 

Textile turned his own masked face toward the creature. “We can still put up a fight, if you aren’t planning on cooperating.” 

“Then all these children die,” the vampire chuckled. “Trust me, no one will miss them.” 

“Can I look at her?” Cylinder blurted out, startling the vampire. 

“What?” it asked. 

“Her,” Cylinder repeated, pointing at the girl with the skinned knees. “I’m a medic. I just want to make sure she’s okay.” 

“Well, once we get them out of the city and to Vampire King, she won’t be hurt anymore,” the vampire said remorselessly. 

“Why haven’t you turned her already?” I asked. 

It looked at me, tilting its head. “You new here?” 

“Only Vampire King can turn humans into vampires,” Piston explained to me under her breath. 

“Come on,” Cylinder pressed, attracting the vampire’s attention again. “I just want her to be comfortable. It’ll only take a second.” 

The vampire rolled its eyes. “You foreigners are all so emotional. Whatever.” 

Cylinder took a step forward. “Thank you. It’ll literally just take a second.” 

He approached the quietly crying girl, slowly lowering his hands and bending his knees to her level. “¿Oye, estas bien?” 

She rubbed her eyes, nodding gently. 

Smiling, Cylinder relaxed his arms at his sides, and I caught a glimpse of silver protruding from the sleeves of his denim jacket. “Necesito que te tapes los oídos.” 

The girl, along with the other children, raised her hands, covering her ears. The vampire who’d been speaking to us glanced at them. “What did you-” 

Cylinder tilted his wrists, his hands blurring as his revolvers dropped into his palms. In one swift jerk, he spun his body in a full circle, flicking the hammers of the guns while keeping them down at his sides. In that brief, split-second spin, the revolvers cracked off nine shots in such quick succession that it sounded like continuous machine-gun fire. Before I could register what had happened, all nine vampires dropped to the floor, holes in their hearts, melting away until only their skeletons remained. 

Returning to his feet, Cylinder began rapidly ejecting spent bullet casings from his revolvers. “I told them it would just take a second.” 

“Vamonos,” Textile commanded, gesturing to the children to follow him. 

Piston turned, unlatching the metal door and shoving it open. Behind me, I heard Cylinder finish reloading his guns. I turned to him as his hands dropped back to his sides. “That was amazing.” 

Cylinder shrugged. “It’s a useful skill sometimes.” 

We followed Textile and the children out of the room, back through the tunnels into the main area of the cave as we recovered the weapons we’d left in the tunnel. The children gasped as they saw the charred, smoking vampire, still pinned to the ground by Textile’s katana. Textile walked over to the vampire, who weakly reached out to him for help. Ignoring the gesture, Textile jerked the blade from the stone, planting it into the creature’s heart and watching it melt into a pile of bones. 

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, sheathing his sword. 

Footsteps echoed ahead, and I saw a figure emerge from the library passage stairs, approaching us. Piston, Cylinder and I hurried forward, joining Textile in placing ourselves between the children and the newcomer. I frowned, even as I assumed my fighting stance. 

This person had no bioelectric signature. 

“No, I don’t think you’re going anywhere,” they said in a low, soft voice. 

The figure emerged from the shadows, revealing a tall, pale man with black, slicked-back hair, wearing a black tunic beneath a red, collared cape. He smiled, baring long, sharp fangs, and his eyes shimmered blood-red in the light of Piston’s flare. 

“Fuck,” Cylinder whispered. “It’s Vampire King.” 

“You’re supposed to be out of the country,” Piston said, slowly reaching for the shotgun on her back. 

“Well, I was,” he said, his voice carrying softly, though I easily heard every word. “But my Patriot friends reached out to me when you attacked. I thought I’d come and see who was playing hero while The Public Servants were above-ground dealing with Angler’s pet.” 

“What do we do?” I whispered to Cylinder. 

“You are getting these children to safety,” he responded, reaching for his watch and squeezing both sides for a few seconds. The screen flashed red twice, then returned to normal. “We’re going to hold him off as long as we can. We are severely outclassed here.” 

I nodded, quietly gesturing for the children to follow me. We slowly walked toward Vampire King, drifting to the right to circle around him. He held up a hand to stop us. “You aren’t leaving with my property.” 

“Your property?” I said, “How dare you think-” 

Rapid gunshots interrupted me, and I saw a volley of bullets pelt Vampire King’s face, forcing him to cover it with his hands as he took a step back. He pulled them away for a second, revealing almost no damage, and hissed at Cylinder. 

“Reloading!” Cylinder yelled, reaching for an ammunition pouch on his belt, and Piston stepping in, unloading her shotgun at Vampire King’s head. 

“Go!” I encouraged the children, and they made a beeline for the stairs while Vampire King was distracted.  

Rather than follow them, I turned back to their tormentor, funneling energy into the transistor coil in my right glove. Gritting my teeth, I sprinted at Vampire King, ducking below Piston’s gunfire. Reaching out, I struck him in the heart, releasing all of my available electricity into the spot. Yellow sparks flashed away from the point, and I smelled his tunic burning.  

Vampire King, however, just smiled down at me. “Hey, you stopped one of my hearts.” 

One of? 

He grabbed my outstretched arm and turned his upper body, flinging me into the air. I felt my stomach flip as I tried to combat the vertigo, but then I was tumbling across stone, pain shooting through my body. 

“Textile, get ready!” I heard Cylinder yell as he fired his revolvers at Vampire King. 

Rolling onto my back with a groan, I caught a glimpse of Vampire King smirking at me before he darted forward in a blur, striking Cylinder in the face with his palm. I heard Cylinder’s nose snap, and he rocketed backwards, sliding to a stop as his guns clattered across the ground. 

Piston moved forward now, while Textile hung back, fiddling with the strange-looking bow I’d seen back at the safe house. Vampire King easily dodged Piston’s flying kicks, parrying them with swift, sharp hand and elbow strikes. Within seconds, Piston crumpled to the cave floor. 

“Turbine!” Textile yelled, snapping me back into focus as he retrieved one of the thick arrow-like bolts and notched it against the bowstring. “Get the children to S.S. I’ll keep him at bay.” 

You?” Vampire King laughed. “What are you going to do, shoot me with an arrow?” 

Textile took aim, using his arm to pull back on the bow. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do.” 

He pulled a trigger on the front of the bow handle, and I saw wheels spin on both ends, stretching the string. A hydraulic hiss synchronized between the bow and the arm holding the bolt, and I saw compressed air ruffle his cloak. His gloved fingers unfolded, releasing the bolt, which snapped forward with so much force that I felt it rumble like a thunderclap. The bolt struck Vampire King in the center of his chest, propelling him across the cave and pinning him to the stone wall. 

I staggered to my feet, stumbling to the staircase as Textile notched another bolt. I made it to the top, bursting into the library, past the unconscious guards, and collapsing on my hands and knees in front of the children. They gathered around me, helping me to my feet, and I gestured for them to follow me. 

As we made it outside and across the street, I turned toward the distant kaiju battle. The crab creature’s outer shell was cracked and leaking now, and it swayed on its feet, collapse imminent. I turned away from the scene, leading the children into the new building and up into the safe house. When I saw that all twenty-three were safely settled, I turned away. 

“Where are you going?” one of the boys asked me in Spanish. 

I smiled at him, responding in kind. “I have to help my friends. They’re in trouble.” 

“Don’t go,” he pleaded, tugging at my body armor. 

“It’s okay,” I said, crouching to his level. “You’re safe now.” 

Before the children could protest any more, I backed out of the safe house, sealing the door behind me. 

I rushed back down the stairs, across the street, and back into the library, heading back to the secret door. As I turned the corner, though, I saw a figure emerge from the staircase. 

A figure in a red, collared cape. 

“Ah, there you are,” Vampire King said, stalking toward me. His tunic was covered in bloody holes, likely from where more of Textile’s bolts had pierced him. “Where are my children?” 

“They’re not your children,” I spat, backing away. “And they’re far from your reach now.” 

Vampire King took another step forward. “When I’m done with you, I’m going to go back downstairs and finish tearing your friends apart, piece by piece. That can be avoided, if you just turn over the livestock.” 

I raised my fists, assuming a fighting stance. “Why don’t you come try it, asshole.” 

Jet engines roared over our heads, beyond the roof of the library, and the ceiling exploded, dropping a massive cloud of dirt and plaster between us. From the rubble rose a tall, red-eyed figure made of metal. 

Sterling Silver. 

“Vlad,” S.S. said, addressing Vampire King. 

“Ah, the robot,” Vampire King replied. “I should have known this was your doing.” 

“I’d suggest surrendering,” S.S. continued. “You’ve done enough.” 

Vampire King cocked his head. “All of your friends are right down the street, yet you came alone. Didn’t want them to see what you’ve been up to?” 

“S.S., how did you know to come?” I asked. 

S.S. turned to me. “Cylinder sent out a distress call. I’m glad I made it. You should go check on-” 

In a blur, Vampire King propelled himself into S.S.’s back, wrapping his arms around the cyborg’s head in an attempt to rip it off. S.S. grabbed Vampire King by the hair, flipping him off of their metal body and slamming him into the library floor. The ground shook from the force of the blow, sending books tumbling off the shelves all around us. 

“Turbine,” S.S. said. “I’ve got this. Go get the others.” 

I nodded, rushing to the secret staircase and descending it as Vampire King and S.S. traded blows that cracked the windows and rattled my bones. I found Textile standing over Piston, trying to wake her up, while Cylinder shakily crawled to his feet, wiping blood from his broken nose. Textile turned to me as I entered the cave, and I saw one of his own bolts protruding through his right shoulder, the entry wound leaking blood onto his powder-blue armor. 

“Textile, are you okay?” I cried, rushing to him.  

He nodded, gingerly touching the bolt. “Yeah. Vampire King got a little cheeky near the end. I’m keeping this in until I can patch myself up.” 

Cylinder stumbled over to me, leaning against my shoulder. “What about Piston?” 

“He really did a number on her,” Textile admitted. “Let’s get her to her feet.” 

Textile and I lifted the woman by her arms, and she mumbled incoherently through her swollen, bruised face. As we helped her toward the stairs, faint rumbles washed over us. 

“What’s that?” Cylinder asked, readying his revolvers. 

“S.S. came, thanks to you,” I answered. “He saved me from Vampire King.” 

We painfully pulled ourselves up the stairs, eventually reaching the top landing. When we limped back out into the library, we found it demolished, the shelves and walls splintered and crumbling. S.S. and Vampire King were nowhere to be found. 

“Are the kids in the safe house?” Textile asked. 

I nodded. 

“Good. We’ll stay in the area until S.S. sends Social Services to come pick them up and find new homes for them.” 

________________ 

We spent the rest of the day in the safe house with the children, keeping them company while they helped us patch each other up. Cylinder was able to reset his nose, and we finally pulled the bolt out of Textile’s shoulder, only to find that the projectile had broken his collarbone when Vampire King stabbed him with it. Piston took longer to come to her senses, but eventually she recovered enough from her apparent concussion to talk to and play with the children some. 

That night, uniformed officers came to the door, using our code phrase to signify their relationship with S.S. We relinquished the children after some long, heartfelt goodbyes, and promised to visit them in their new homes when we had the opportunity. After they were gone, we packed up our gear, changed into civilian clothes, and made our way to our midtown base. We opened the door to find S.S. waiting for us inside. 

“Good evening, team,” S.S. said. Their metal frame was covered in dents and scratches, and their left arm hung loosely at their side. 

“You came in person?” Piston asked incredulously. “You never do that.” 

“Are you okay?” I interjected. 

“Oh, I’m fine,” they responded. “Nothing that won’t buff out.” 

They sat on the floor, addressing the entire group. “We’re currently sweeping the tunnel system you found beneath the library, and eventually plan on sealing it so neither Vampire King nor any of his accomplices will be able to use it for nefarious purposes.” 

“Do you need our help?” Piston asked. 

“No, no, that’s not necessary,” S.S. answered. “You’ve done enough. Your mission is complete.” 

The cyborg turned their red eyes on me. “Mr. Electric Eel, I want to thank you for your service. You worked alongside the rest of the team flawlessly, and I’m compelled to commend you on a job well done.” 

I felt my face flush with pride. 

Returning their attention to the others, S.S. continued. “Had I known about Vampire King’s involvement, I would have been more cautious about sending you after those kids. This is your time, then, to rest and recover. Think of it like a vacation.” 

I traded glances with the others, relief washing over my body. 

“When you’re ready, though, let me know,” S.S. added. “There’s plenty more work to be done, and I know now more than ever that I can trust the four of you to take care of it.” 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 4 – Withdrawal Notice 

“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 . . .” 

A muffled call alerted me to the young blonde bank teller seated directly ahead, and I pulled out my earbuds, extinguishing the sound of pop idol Erica Leroux’s new hit song, “Mr. Mystery.” The teller frowned at me, gesturing for me to approach her booth. I obliged, smiling awkwardly  

“Sorry,” I mumbled, retrieving a crumpled piece of paper. “It’s a really catchy song.” 

“More of that Leroux garbage?” the teller asked. “I’m more of a classic rock fan. Green Day, Fall Out Boy, all of that old stuff.” 

“Ah, that’s fair,” I responded, holding up the paper. “I don’t have an account with you guys yet, but I wanted to deposit this. What would you recommend?” 

She snatched the check from my hand, surveying it. “Public Utilities Construction, LLC. Never heard of ‘em. They sure pay well, though, don’t they?” 

I shrugged, reaching into my messenger bag. “I have my employment papers, if that helps.” 

Turned away from me, she caught the eye of a woman who I assumed to be one of the bank managers. “This gentleman would like to open an account with us. Are you free?” 

The front doors behind me creaked open, and heavy footsteps flooded into the building. I sensed eight figures rapidly approaching, their hands positioned to indicate they were holding weapons. My eyes widened in tandem with the teller’s as she looked over my shoulder. Turning away from the line, I made a beeline for the restrooms. 

“Everybody on the ground, now!” a man screamed, punctuating his demand with a burst of machine-gun fire. 

I quickened my stride as the other bank patrons and employees screamed, diving for the floor. 

“You too!” another voice cried, and I sensed the group turning in my direction. My walk became a run, and I dove through the restroom doors, heart pounding. 

“Billy, go take care of him,” I heard one of the men say. 

Turning to the restroom mirror, I spied my own face, wide-eyed and sweaty. My trembling hands reached up, wiping the moisture from my forehead, and I closed my eyes, steeling myself. Just beyond the door, I sensed a rifle-wielding man, presumably Billy, raise his weapon, and I dove to the floor. 

The restroom walls roared as a wave of bullets ripped through the wooden door, demolishing tile and ceramic and glass. I covered my ears, wiggling like a worm across the floor beneath the restroom stalls as debris rained down on my back. 

Then, as quickly as it began, the gunfire ceased, bullet casings tinkling across the bank floor beyond the perforated restroom door. Holding my breath, I crawled to my feet, reaching a standing position within the stall closest to the door. As I prepared myself, the door creaked open, and Billy stepped inside, donned in a disheveled grey suit, sans tie. 

“Where’d you go, you little-” 

I shoved the stall door open, slamming my palm against his ribcage and injecting him with a burst of electricity. The current lifted him off his feet, and he flew back against the restroom mirror, cracking it against his back as his weapon – some kind of old-fashioned tommy gun – clattered to the floor. He uttered a low groan, his eyelids fluttering, and I reached up, covering his mouth. 

“Billy?” one of the other men called. “You gotta take a piss or somethin’?” 

I cleared my throat, emulating Billy’s voice the best I could. “Sorry. Made a mess. Be right out.” 

The man paused, suspicion lingering in the air, before responding. “We ain’t got all day, Billy.” 

I glanced at Billy, whose eyes stared widely back at me. It took me a second before I realized he now trembled, as if terrified. 

Of me? I wondered. I barely touched him. 

“Mmf,” he pleaded through his covered lips. “Mf mmf mmf mmf.” 

I cocked my head. His heart rate had changed. His entire body language was different now than a moment before. 

What had happened? 

Taking a chance, I pulled my hand away from his mouth. “What?” 

“I need your help,” he repeated, whispering. 

Turning to the door, I clenched my jaw. “I don’t have time for games.” 

“No! Listen to me!” he hissed, grabbing my arm. “They’re under some kind of mind control.” 

I returned my attention to the man. “¿Qué?” 

“We’re all nightclub bouncers,” Billy explained. “Down at the Emerald Lamp. Last night, we were hanging out after the club closed, and then BOOM! We wake up on the way to the bank this morning, guns in hand. I wasn’t able to move or speak on my own. It’s like I was in a dream, but someone else was controlling it.” 

“And you just now woke up?” I pressed. 

Billy nodded. “Something shook loose in my head when you shocked me. How’d you do that, anyway?” 

“Hey, Billy!” one of the other bouncers called. “Get the fuck out here already.” 

Crouching, I retrieved Billy’s tommy gun, shoving it into his arms. “Play along as if you’re still under the trance. We’ll work it out as we go, but if we stay in here any longer, they’ll kill us both.” 

Without another word, I turned my back to him, placing my hands on top of my head. “Lead us out, please.” 

He quickly hopped up, sticking the barrel of the gun between my shoulder blades. Together, we exited the demolished restaurant, emerging to see the other seven bouncers circling the bank’s remaining inhabitants, who were now curled up on the floor in the middle of the lobby. The other bouncers were dressed like Billy, wearing crumpled suits that they seemed to have slept in for days without removing.  

“This one didn’t want to give up, Kent,” Billy explained. “I had to go to work on him.” 

Kent examined me. “He seems alright. What did you hit him with, your pinky?” 

He reared back, punching me across the face, and I fell to my knees in faux surprise. It wasn’t pleasant, but his punch carried far less weight than Vampire King’s. Still, I allowed the blood from my newly split lip to drip from my mouth, keeping my head hung low. 

“Door are secure, Kent,” one of the other bouncers muttered to the man. “We should be able to get through the safe in no time, long before the cops have the balls to bust in here.” 

“Right.” Kent nodded while Billy dragged me over to the other hostages. He turned toward the blonde teller I’d spoken with earlier; the “classic rock” purist. “You. My informant tells me you have the safe codes?” 

She hesitated, glancing back at the bank manager, but Kent grabbed her shoulders, shaking her. 

“I didn’t ask you to look at her, did I?” 

The teller shook her head, mascara-stained tears running down her cheeks. 

“Do. You. Have. The. Safe. Codes.” Kent repeated. 

She nodded, shuddering in fear. 

“Then you’re coming with us.” Kent grabbed her by the arm, jerking her to her feet. Two of the other bouncers followed him as he dragged the teller toward the back of the bank. “Anyone else moves, you’ll get a couple new breathing holes.” 

Mind control, huh? I thought. That may well be the case for Billy, but Kent seems like he’s running the show. 

Billy and the four remaining bouncers circled us like sharks, tommy guns at the ready. 

Well, I can’t attack them outright. The chance of getting a hostage killed is too high. 

I saw Billy wipe his brow, glancing nervously at me. 

But if I wait for police intervention, or if my own team gets involved, the robbers may die instead. And, if Billy is right, they’re just as much victims as we are right now. 

Glancing at Billy, I nodded reassuringly. 

Besides, I’d really rather not give away my secret identity after my first week. 

Behind me, I sensed Kent and the blonde teller working to open the safe. Outside, despite a lack of police sirens, I felt armed men and women preparing themselves just beyond the bank doors. 

Whatever I do, I need to do it quickly.  

“Hey,” I whispered to one of the bouncers. “Hey. My chest hurts real bad. I think I’m having a heart attack.” 

The man just stared at me for a moment before turning away. Frowning, I threw myself to the ground, convulsing. The bouncer returned his attention to me, rushing to my side. Setting his gun aside, he reached for me, grabbing my wrist. 

“Hey! Cut it out-” 

Tensing, I sent an electric shock into his arm, attempting to match the voltage I’d used on Billy. He stiffened for a second, then collapsed to the floor next to me, moaning. I stopped convulsing, feigning unconsciousness as I waited to see what the other two bouncers would do. 

“Jay?” one of the other bouncers said, creeping toward us. “What happened, Jay?” 

Jay stirred, sitting up and looking around the bank in confusion. “What?” 

I peeked through my eyelids and saw panic wash across his face. He jumped to his feet, taking aim at Billy and the other two bouncers with his tommy gun. “Put the guns down! I know you’re not in control, but we can’t hurt these people!” 

The two remaining bouncers glanced at each other, then took aim at Jay, opening fire. The hostages screamed as Jay flew onto his back, bloody and bullet-ridden. His tommy gun slid across the floor, far out of my reach.  

I wasn’t sure if I’d want to use it anyway; this certainly wasn’t the outcome I’d hoped for. 

While the two killers examined Jay’s body, Billy popped up behind them, striking one across the head with the butt of his gun. The assaulted bouncer collapsed, seemingly unconscious, and as the remaining bouncer turned in surprised, I leapt to my feet, charging at him. He glanced between Billy and myself, seemingly unsure of what to do, and Billy took advantage of his confusion, kicking the gun from his hands as I shouldered him to the ground. I pinned him, preparing another shock, when something small rolled across the floor, away from his head. 

An earpiece? 

“What the absolute hell is going on out here?” I heard Kent demand, and I sensed him return to the lobby with the other two bouncers. “Get off of him right now.” 

Why would they need earpieces? They’re all together. 

I flashed back to Billy and Jay, remembering how they’d responded to my shocks. 

I didn’t reset their brainwaves, or any nonsense like that. I just turned off the thing that was keeping them under control. 

“I’m counting to five,” Kent boomed. “One. Two. Five . . .” 

Squeezing my eyes shut, I gathered all of my strength and emitted an electrical pulse. 

All around us, the lights flickered, showering us in yellow sparks before going dark. Kent and the other two bouncers dropped their guns, clutching at their ears as they cried out in agony. Beneath me, the man I’d tackled writhed in pain, while Billy watched from above, unfazed. 

Then, the moment passed, and the bouncers looked around, stunned. 

“Oh. Oh my God.” Kent ran to Jay’s body, kneeling. “Jay, wake up. Come on, man.” 

As I stood to my feet, the front doors exploded inward, and a SWAT team hurried into the bank, yelling for everyone to return to the ground. I obliged, as did the remaining bouncers, though Billy spoke up as he laid down. 

“It wasn’t us! I swear to God, we were under some kind of mind control or something!” 

The other bouncers chimed in in agreement, their voices echoing around the bank lobby. 

Suddenly, I felt strong hands pull me to my feet, and I turned to the SWAT agent who’d grabbed me. They pulled me through the crowd of police and hostage, hurrying me toward one of the side doors. 

“Crikey, mate,” a familiar voice said, muffled through the mask. “I leave you alone for five seconds . . .” 

“Piston!” I whispered. “He’s right. They had some kind of device in their ears that was controlling them. After I fried them, they woke up. There’s something happening here, something we aren’t seeing.” 

“Hey!” one of the SWAT agents lifted the now-handcuffed Kent to his feet. “Where’s the money?” 

Kent looked around, confused. “Money? We left it in the vault when we heard trouble in the lobby.” 

I spun around, quickly surveying the room with my eyes before reaching out with my other senses.  

Someone’s missing. 

“Well, the money’s gone,” the SWAT agent responded to Kent. “Who took it?” 

The teller. The classic rock purist. She’s gone. 

Another realization struck me, and I groaned. 

“I never got to deposit my check,” I muttered as Piston shoved me out of the bank’s side door and into the freedom of the streets. 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 5 – The Driver’s Handbook 

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. 

Now what? 

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.” 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 6 – See Something, Say Something 

“Hold still,” S.S. chastised, their hollow voice conveying a worrisome amount of glee. “Stop squirming so much.” 

I gritted my teeth, holding myself in place in the swivel chair mounted before a well-lit mirror in the back of our midtown safe house. “You keep telling us how dangerous it is for us to be seen together, yet one of the rare times you visit, it’s to do our makeup? Esto es ridículo.” 

“Well, this is important,” S.S. explained, the facial prosthesis comically out of place in their massive metal hands as they applied it to my skin. “We can’t have anyone recognizing you or Textile tonight at the party. Also, this material has a special infrared shield that will make your face undetectable to security cameras.” 

“Oh, really?” Textile asked, patiently waiting his turn in the chair next to mine. He absently scratched at an itch under the cast molded around his arm, which hung in a sling where Vampire King had shattered his collarbone. “Smart move, S.S.” 

“That’s all bullshit, though,” Cylinder remarked from couch on the other side of the safe house. “We could’ve done this ourselves. S.S. just has a soft spot for dressing people up. Like playing with Barbie dolls.” 

Sighing, S.S. turned their glowing red eyes towards the marksman. “I suppose I would have been a fashion consultant in another life.” 

“A damn good one, too,” Cylinder added, wincing as he pressed an ice pack against his bruised neck where Avian had grabbed him. 

S.S. returned their attention to me. “Textile is going to be with you as backup, but you’re leading tonight’s mission, Mr. Electric Eel. Tell me what you’re doing.” 

I glanced at Textile, who nodded reassuringly before speaking up. 

“Well, in addition to the central Public Servants headquarters, most of the individual heroes have their own private living units in the city. Fortunately for us, The Living Mortar, our potential mole, is hosting a dinner party tonight at his suburban home on the Western edge of the city. You, our generous benefactor, have procured invitations and fake identities for Textile and myself, so that we may search for evidence and perhaps get some free food.” 

S.S. stared blankly at me, clearly not amused by my joke. 

“Oh, yeah. And your intel mentions a secret lair beneath the house. That’s where we’ll start, and that’s why I’m leading. I’m your best bet for locating and accessing the entrance to it.” 

“That’s right,” S.S. finally said, turning to Textile. “Anything you want to add?” 

Textile shrugged with his remaining arm. “The kid’s got it. I’m not worried.” 

He turned to wink at me, and I tried to suppress a grin, with little success. 

“I agree,” S.S. commented. “Still, I want you to be extremely careful. Any one of The Public Servants is dangerous on their own-” 

“Avian wasn’t so bad,” Cylinder muttered, interrupting. 

S.S.’s head swiveled in his direction. “I’m sorry, are you referring to the little girl who threw you out of a moving car and disarmed Piston with her pet bird?” 

Cylinder blushed, looking at his feet. 

“That’s what I thought,” S.S. continued, returning their attention to Textile and myself. “As I was saying, any one Public Servant is dangerous, but The Living Mortar is a special breed. He is, quite literally, indestructible, as long as he wants to be. Beyond that, the analyst you procured was unable to provide sufficient evidence to actually prove his complicity with Black Pharaoh, the Russians, or this Phantom character. Therefore, you are to make as little contact with him as possible. As far as he’s concerned, you won’t even be there tonight. Am I understood?” 

Textile and I silently nodded. 

“Good.” S.S. turned to a clothes rack resting nearby, plucking a suit from its hanger. “Now, stand up so we can find out what formal wear best fits your frame. I’m quite enjoying myself.” 

________________ 

Textile and I ogled as we pulled up to a massive red-brick home. A young valet stood outside the entrance, and as I parked the car, he approached, opening Textile’s passenger door. Textile wiggled out of his seat, and I followed suit, strangely uncomfortable with the idea of the valet opening my door for me. As we passed the man, I handed him my keys and a ten-dollar bill. 

“Please take good care of it,” I said to him. “My other one is still in the shop.” 

He smiled, nodding at me, and within seconds, he and the car vanished around the back of the house. We returned our attention to The Living Mortar’s mansion, approaching a tall, muscular man standing in the doorway with a list. 

“Names?” he boomed. 

Textile and I traded glances. 

“Denzel Oceano,” I answered. 

“Jimmy Stocks,” Textile added. 

The man scowled, scouring the list. After an unbearably silent ten seconds, he finally glanced back up at us. “Go on in.” 

We happily obliged, hurrying past the man. As we entered the foyer, I caught a glimpse of myself in a small wall mirror and almost performed a double-take, still shocked by how much S.S. had transformed me. 

“Mi propia madre no me reconocería,” I murmured to myself. 

More guests entered behind us, including some actors I vaguely recognized and a woman who I quickly realized was a high-ranking judge. Textile and I mingled with the newcomers briefly, introducing ourselves as journalists covering the event. As more people flooded in, though, the politicians and celebrities began to recognize each other, leaving us alone. 

“Now’s our chance,” I whispered to Textile. “I’m gonna poke around.” 

I casually strolled around the house, weaving in and out of clumps of party-goers, scanning the floors and walls for unusual electrical activity that may indicate hidden doors or rooms. It didn’t take long before I picked up on a trail that led me away from the chatter and laughter. As I turned into a small hallway, following a focused current beneath the floorboards, I snagged a cocktail from a passing tray, sipping it to appear less suspicious. 

I approached an opening on my left, almost colliding with a tall, white, muscular man sporting salt-and-pepper hair as he exited from the other direction. He stepped back, apologizing profusely, and reached up to straighten his suit’s bow tie. I opened my mouth to apologize as well, but my eyes drifted to a pair of aviator goggles hanging around his neck, and I froze. 

The Living Mortar wears aviator goggles. 

The superhero saw my expression and chuckled. “First time meeting a Public Servant?” 

I willed myself to hide my anxiety, nodding and breaking into a sheepish smile. “That obvious, huh?” 

The Living Mortar patted me on the shoulder, firmly guiding me away from the room he’d just left. “Are the other guests boring you already? There’s nothing back this way but my dusty book collection.” 

I walked with him back the way I came, shrugging. “To be honest, I’ve never been to a party this nice before. I’m not really sure what to do with myself.” 

“God, I definitely can relate to that,” he admitted as we migrated into the guest-filled living room. “But these blood-suckers expect nothing but the best- Oh hey, Margaret! How’s your mom doing?” 

He stopped to address a silver-haired model wearing a tight red dress, and I quickly slipped away, wiping the sweat from my brow as I hunted for Textile. I found the man near the food table, flirting heavily with two young women who I didn’t recognize. Catching his eye, I gestured for him to come closer, and he excused himself. 

“What did you find?” he asked, glancing back once more at the giggling women. 

I pulled him towards the closest wall, away from the other guests. “Next time, you can make small talk with a potential bad guy and I’ll hit on the attractive celebrities.” 

“There’s still time,” he said, smirking. “I’m pretty sure Senator Craig swings your way-” 

“That’s very cute,” I interrupted, “but I think I know how to get into his . . . uh . . . ‘man cave.’” 

Textile nodded. “We’ll wait until he’s distracted, then.” 

________________ 

An hour of mingling passed, then two, and The Living Mortar showed no signs of relieving his guests of his attention. Under any other circumstances, I would have been impressed, but as the clock ticked eternally onward, I felt my window of opportunity closing. Finally, I heard a gentle chime reverberate through the audience as someone tapped silverware against the side of their glass. I searched through the crowd until I discovered the source. 

“Dios mío,” I whispered to Textile. “Isn’t that Treble Clef?” 

Textile glanced in the direction I was looking. “Sure is. And he came in costume, the big nerd.” 

Walking to the center of the room, Treble Clef stood tall in his black, metallic body armor and mirrored glass helmet. The helmet obscured his features, and neon rainbow lights shimmered across the front of the glass, weaving their way down the rest of his armor. If he wasn’t so well-known as a Public Servant, I’d have assumed he was a particularly theatrical DJ. 

“I’ve known The Living Mortar since The Great War of 2022,” the superhero began, using his sonic manipulation abilities to project his voice effortlessly throughout the room. “As most of you are aware, he and I were two of the last people to join the Public Servants program, and we bonded quickly over our love for science. After the war, we helped establish New General City’s early infrastructure, ensuring every legal citizen had somewhere to call home.” 

Everyone in the room lightly applauded, but he raised his hand to shush them. “I mean this not as a boast, but to make a point. We’re worth more than a body on the battlefield, or a presence in the streets. The Public Servants are here to make the world a better place, and I can’t think of anyone who embodies that ideal more than The Living Mortar.” 

Treble Clef turned to the salt-and-pepper-haired host, raising a glass. “Here’s to a better world.” 

“To a better world!” the crowd repeated, taking a drink. 

I gestured to Textile, and we backed away from the others, slipping out of the living room and back into the hallway. Leading Textile back toward the room The Living Mortar had exited, I poked my head around the doorway, inspecting within. My eyes adjusted to the dim lighting quickly, revealing a small library. Turning to Textile, I nodded before slipping inside, and he closely followed. 

We circled the room like sharks, examining the bookshelves that lined the walls. I saw mostly science fiction and fantasy stories, along with a few shelves dedicated to storing tabletop role-playing games. As I continued to scan the space, reaching out with my electrical sense, Textile rifled through a stack of notes on the game shelves. 

“Ew, gross,” he commented, curling up his nose as he read one of the documents. 

I took a step closer. “What is it?” 

Textile looked up at me. “All his character sheets are Bards.” 

I rolled my eyes, sticking my thumb over my shoulder. “There’s a focal point of electrical energy behind his Warhammer book collection.” 

Textile joined me at my side as I reached out, running my fingertips along the novels’ spines. I stopped at Legacies of Betrayal, pulling at it to take a closer look. Instead, the book slid out about an inch before emitting a soft click, springing back into place as if connected to a spring. 

The bookshelf creaked slightly as it drifted backwards, the movement so small that it was almost imperceptible. I leaned into it, and it swung back completely, revealing a hidden spiral staircase descending below the house. The Last Patriot vampires flashed into my mind, and I shivered. 

“Let’s go,” I whispered, heading down the tight staircase. 

We quickly reached the bottom, emerging into a stone-grey concrete room lit by harsh white fluorescents. The wall to our left housed racks of firearms and explosives. To our right, boxes of unidentifiable electronics laid out on a long table. Opposite us, shoved against the back wall, sat a wooden desk which supported a single computer and monitor. 

Trading glances, we made our way to the desk, circling it to examine the contents of the monitor. 

“It’s locked and encrypted,” I whispered.  

Rather than respond, Textile reached into his pocket with his free arm, retrieving an ink pen. Using his teeth, he uncapped the rear half of the pen, revealing a flash drive. He quickly located a port on the side of the computer, attempted to insert the drive, but it rejected his advances. Frowning, he flipped the drive upside-down and tried again, with the same results. He raised one eyebrow, flipped the drive back to its original position, and this time, it slipped all the way into the computer. 

“Every damn time,” he muttered under his breath. 

The monitor flickered, and blacked-out text began to fill the password window. Within seconds, the lock screen disappeared, revealing a neatly-organized desktop. I felt my wrist buzz, and I looked down to see an anonymous caller ringing my watch. Textile’s watch lit up, too, and we both retrieved our earbuds, plugging them into our ears.  

“Thanks for the remote access,” S.S.’s voice rang in my head. “Give me a second to scour the hard drive and I’ll see if my old friend has been keeping- oh. Oh, no.” 

“What is it?” Textile asked. “What did you find?” 

“I’ll show you,” they said. 

The mouse pointer moved across the desktop, diving into a series of folders until it accessed an unnamed program. A series of windows popped on-screen, displaying what appeared to be security camera angles of the inside of a hospital. One of the windows, captioned “Project Nymph,” maximized its size, filling the monitor. Textile and I leaned closer, eyes widening. 

I saw an operating room of some kind, the central table modified with thick restraints. As we watched, a group of black-clad men and women carried a screaming teenage girl into the room, throwing her unceremoniously onto the table and fastening her arms and legs down to the cold metal. She struggled, her long, black hair swishing back and forth off the side of the table as she pulled at her restraints, to no avail. 

“Is this a recording?” I asked. 

“No,” S.S. answered in my ear. “This is a live stream.” 

A man in a lab coat entered the room, holding a large syringe filled with some kind of black liquid. He approached her, checking his watch, before jamming the needle into her neck, depressing the plunger. Her screams intensified, growing more shrill, and the man in the lab coat nodded to one of the black-clad people, who reached over to a wireless speaker next to the table and swiveled the dial. Music blasted into the room, drowning out the girl’s cries. 

“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 . . .” 

The man in the lab coat backed away, and the girl writhed in pain for a few more seconds before collapsing on the table, exhausted. He lowered the volume of Erica Leroux’s music, checking his watch again. 

“Allow another twenty minutes of gestation,” he instructed, “then put her back in her cell.” 

I looked away from the monitor, squeezing my eyes shut. “Where is this?” 

“If my trace is correct, this feed is streaming from St. Dymphna Hospital, in midtown,” S.S. responded. “Likely a hidden basement level.” 

“I can’t believe this,” Textile growled. “Black Pharaoh is running human experiments out of a hospital? And The Living Mortar is helping him?”  

“I wouldn’t say ‘helping,’ per se,” a voice interrupted us. “Maybe ‘enabling’ is more appropriate.” 

We looked up, startled, as The Living Mortar entered the room, loosening his bow tie. He smiled, shoving his hands in his pockets, his aviator goggles still dangling around his neck.  

“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you two aren’t journalists,” he said, slowly approaching us. “Or, maybe you’re just very good journalists.” 

“Get out of there,” S.S. said. “Now.” 

Textile glared at the man, his free hand slowly drifting up toward the sling where his other arm rested. “Why? After all the good you’ve done for New General City, for the world, why are you doing this now?” 

The Living Mortar shrugged. “Money? Power? Why do you care?” 

Textile opened his mouth to speak again, but a new voice called out, stopping him. 

“Rick? Rick! Where are- hm.” 

A blur of neon rainbow lights burst into the room, decelerating near the center to reveal Treble Clef. He looked around for a second, absorbing his surroundings. 

“Rick?” he finally said. “What is this place doing under your house?” 

He turned to face The Living Mortar. “And who are these people?” 

The Living Mortar sighed, and I felt a change sweep through the room, as if there was a shift in air pressure. Before anyone could react, he lashed out with one arm, backhanding Treble Clef across the helmet. The glass faceplate shattered as Treble Clef flew backwards into a gun rack, the display toppling over his body as he crumpled to the floor. The Living Mortar stretched his neck, returning his attention to us. 

“I guess nuance is out of the question, now.” 

I held up my hands. “We aren’t the only people investigating you. Other people outside of this room know about your treason. You can’t bury your secret with us.” 

The Living Mortar clutched the edge of the desk with one hand, effortlessly lifting it into the air and tossing it aside. It smashed into the wall, exploding into splinters of wood and plastic, and The Living Mortar stepped closer, no longer impeded by the furniture. 

“Yeah, you’ve pretty much fucked this operation,” he admitted, cracking his knuckles. “Doesn’t mean I have any reason to keep you-” 

Textile flicked his arm forward, releasing a small grey sphere the size of golf ball. It struck The Living Mortar in the head, exploding into a semi-solid grey putty that plastered across his face. The traitor screamed, his voice muffled by the putty, and reached up, clutching at his face. He tried to pull the putty away, but he seemed unable to get a grip on the edges, and after a few seconds, he went limp, collapsing on the concrete with a heavy thud. 

“Chloroform putty,” Textile explained to me. “If you can’t hit ‘em, put ‘em to sleep.” 

“Good work, team,” S.S. said. “Get out of there so I can collect him.” 

“Who are you going to bring with you?” I asked as we rushed up the stairs. “Spectral Man? Captain Arcturus?” 

“No, this is going to stay below the radar,” S.S. said. “The mole has been identified and will be dealt with accordingly. Notifying the other Public Servants, or the people of New General City, would sow the seeds of distrust, both internally and externally.” 

“So, you’re going to just lie?” I asked incredulously, lowering my voice as we entered the living room, still full of guests. “The people will never know about The Living Mortar and what he’s done?” 

“We can’t compromise the good that The Public Servants brings to the world just to boast complete transparency,” S.S. said. “If anyone finds out one of us was secretly working for Black Pharaoh, we’ll get shut down. Our relationship with New General City is what allows us to protect it, along with the rest of the world.” 

I wrinkled my nose in disgust as we exited The Living Mortar’s house, hurrying towards our car. “It sounds like you’re just scared of the consequences of your own ignorance.” 

Textile glanced at me, eyes wide, and I heard nothing but silence in my ear for a moment. Finally, S.S. responded. 

“I think it’s important to remove your feelings from-” 

A massive explosion behind us rattled my eardrums, the shockwave lifting me off my feet and slamming me into the side of the car. As I slid to the ground, I turned to see The Living Mortar’s house in flames, most of the structure completely disintegrated. A shadow appeared, and I saw the valet stumble past us in a daze, blood leaking from his ears. 

“Oh my God,” Textile said. “The people. The party guests. They were all still inside.” 

A figure ascended from the burning home, their white hooded cloak fluttering in the wind. They turned to look at us, and I saw the light from the flames glimmer off of the lenses of their aviator goggles. 

“The Living Mortar,” I growled. 

Waving, he extended his arm, rocketing up into the clouds and out of sight. 

“Emergency vehicles are en route,” S.S. said in my ear. “Your mission parameters have changed.” 

“Oh yeah?” I spat angrily, ripping the prosthetic disguise from my face. “What now?” 

S.S. sighed somberly before continuing. 

“I need you to kill The Living Mortar.” 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 7 – Citizen’s Arrest 

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. 

“Now.” 

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 . . .” 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 8 – Alternative Medicine 

Cylinder and I walked up to the front entrance of the St. Dymphna Hospital, patiently waiting for the motion sensor to let us pass. As the glass doors slid back, revealing a quiet lobby, we stepped inside, adjusting our janitor’s apparel. The receptionist glanced up, nodding approvingly at us, and we turned away from her, making a beeline for the elevators. I shifted uncomfortably as I walked, Pulsar weighing down my duffel bag. 

“Not many guards,” Cylinder muttered, looking over his shoulder at me. “I’m guessing security is a bit tighter where we’re going.” 

“You think?” I retorted as we reached the end of the hallway, punching the DOWN elevator button.  

The doors slid back, and we walked inside the cramped space, which we thankfully found empty. Cylinder pressed the button for the lowest parking garage level, and I felt something pull against my stomach as we descended. He glanced at me, and I nodded, keeping my eye on the floor indicator. As we reached “P3,” I concentrated, sending a shockwave from my body that caused the overhead fluorescents to explode, showering us in yellow sparks. The elevator rumbled to a halt as the cabin filled with darkness, and Cylinder quickly strapped a headlamp to his forehead. 

“Backup generator hits in thirty seconds,” he said, lifting the emergency hatch in the elevator’s roof. “Until then, we should be invisible to cameras and security sensors.” 

We scrambled up onto the roof of the elevator, Cylinder’s headlamp cutting a swathe through the darkness. Together, we peered over the edge, our gaze traveling down the thick metal cables holding us aloft until they disappeared into shadow. 

“Doesn’t look like the final floor to me,” Cylinder quipped. “How deep we talking here?” 

I reached out with my senses, examining the space below us. “Hundred feet, max?” 

Cylinder smiled, reaching for his duffel bag. “Good enough.” 

Joining him, I grabbed the grappling hooks and climbing rope, hooking the former to the edge of the elevator shaft while tying the latter around my waist. Around that moment, we heard a distinct hum, and I sensed power returning to the hospital above, kicking the elevator back into action. Cylinder and I traded glances before hurling ourselves off the roof of the elevator, the climbing ropes swinging us into the metal shaft wall with a heavy thud. 

“Thirty seconds doesn’t go as far as it used to,” grumbled Cylinder, tightening his grip on the rope.  

We rappelled in tandem, sliding down the shaft as our elevator rose further above our heads. Within a minute, we found our feet touching the bottom of the space, and we untied ourselves from the ropes, removing our janitor’s apparel to reveal our mission outfits underneath. I affixed my domino mask to my face as Cylinder donned his baseball cap, and summoned Pulsar to my hand as he retrieved new revolvers from the duffel bag. 

“What’s on the menu today?” I inquired, gesturing at his firearms. 

He glanced at me as he loaded bullets into the revolvers. “Nagant M1895s. Made with a system designed to seal the explosive gases from contact with the air. Essentially, a silent revolver. Well, a less deafening revolver. Textile tweaked the casing with some modern improvements to make it actually silent.” 

“Neat,” I said. “Just like the movies.” 

A shadow fell across his face, and he scowled. “No, the movies get it so wrong–” 

I gestured to the doors ahead of us, interrupting him. “Maybe this can wait?” 

“I . . . uh . . . yeah, I guess,” Cylinder sighed. 

Weapons in hand, we edged up to the sliding doors, pressing ourselves against cool metal. I reached out with my senses again, scanning for threats. 

“Nothing on the other side,” I said. “Nothing human, at least.” 

Cylinder nodded, and we pried the doors back, sneaking into a concrete hallway illuminated by white, flickering fluorescents. He took point behind me, Nagant revolvers raised, his eyes twitching as they assessed the area at an inhuman speed. 

“Do we have any working details about where the girl we saw is being kept?” I asked him.  

He shook his head. “The connection was severed after The Living Mortar blew up his house. For all we know, they already moved her out of here. But we have to try, right?” 

I gripped Pulsar tighter, thinking about the children we’d recently rescued from Vampire King and The Last Patriots. “That’s for damn sure.” 

We turned the corner, and I stepped in something wet, my feet slipping under me. I fell back, but Cylinder caught me at an angle, and I looked up at him, chuckling nervously. Together, we glanced at the floor . . .  

The blood-covered floor. 

“Dios mío,” I whispered. “What happened here?” 

Red glistened against the concrete, creating slug-like trails that dragged down the hallway. Bloody handprints adorned the walls and – I looked up – the ceiling? 

“Knowing our luck,” Cylinder muttered, “we’ll probably find out in a moment.” 

We pressed on, haloed by the fluorescent lights, which darkened as we progressed, hindered by bloody streaks and broken bulbs. A rotten smell filled the air, and I stifled a cough, covering my nose and mouth with the crook of my arm.  

“Over here,” I choked out quietly, gesturing to a door on the left. “I’m sensing something consuming a great deal of power this way. Possibly some kind of computer array.” 

Pulsar gripped tightly, I pressed against the door, edging it open and peering through the crack. I neither saw nor sensed anything alive, so I pushed the rest of the way through, holding my breath as I crept inside. As Cylinder followed, I surveyed the dimly lit space, trying to parse its contents. 

A series of computer banks lined the far wall, their buttons blinking red and green and highlighting unfamiliar characters, though I couldn’t see the contents too well. Obscuring the computers sat four glass columns, stretching from floor to ceiling, filled with a viscous, clear fluid. The fluid suspended one object per container, each one stranger and more foreign than the last. Cylinder and I approached the columns, examining them. 

The furthest to the left housed a massive blue jellyfish that I recognized as a man-o’-war, its long tendrils pressed against the glass as if it were trying to push its way through to freedom. The second column contained a black, faceless alligator, its skin so ridged and rubbery that it almost reminded me of a car tire. In the third column sat a cluster of severed, purple tentacles, their edges frayed like the petals of a wilted flower. My eyes traveled to the last glass tube . . . 

Which had been shattered, its contents missing. 

I turned to Cylinder, asking the obvious question. “What do you think–” 

Rapid footsteps interrupted me, and I twisted my neck in time to see a black-masked silhouette rushing towards us. I clutched Pulsar tightly, swinging the flat of the blade into the would-be attacker’s face with a sharp crack. The newcomer flipped onto their back, scrambling backwards across the floor in a series of sharp, unnatural movements. The mask, I now realized, was no mask at all; rather, it seemed that the man’s face was covered by a black spider the size of a dinner plate. 

“What the actual fuck,” gasped Cylinder. 

The man rose to his feet like a puppet pulled by its strings, the body of the arachnid on his face twisting a little to allow its eight glistening eyes better access to us. The spider’s legs tightened around the back of the man’s head, and he reached for a holster on his hip, retrieving a long combat knife.  

“It’s the security,” I said, realization striking me. “This was the lab security we saw in The Living Mortar’s video stream.” 

“Not anymore,” Cylinder quipped, raising one of his Nagant revolvers and pulling the trigger. 

The bullet ejected from the firearm with a harsh whisper, silently whizzing through the air and striking the spider’s carapace. The exoskeleton cracked, a two-square-inch portion flaking away, and green goo oozed from the wound. I heard the spider screech, its cry drilling a sharp pain through my eardrums and into my skull, and the man it was attached to staggered back, dropping the knife. Cylinder fired again, penetrating the hole he’d created, and red blood sprayed from the back of the man’s head. The screeching ceased, and both arachnid and human crumpled to the floor. 

Nearby, just beyond the lab, more footsteps approached, rapid and scrambling like the man we’d just killed. I reached out with my senses, but I couldn’t identify any bioelectric activity. 

“They’re dead,” I explained to Cylinder. “Whatever’s approaching, they’re dead already. The spider, it was controlling a corpse.” 

“I guess ethics is a non-issue, then,” Cylinder replied, and I nodded, readying Pulsar. 

More spider-faced men burst into the room, flooding the space, and Cylinder opened fire, his rapid, precise shots downing the first wave before they could take a second step towards us. After a few seconds and four downed bodies, he pulled his arms to his chest, ejecting spent shells. I stepped forward, hurling Pulsar at the closest attacker. It spiraled across the lab, bisecting the closest spider-face, before returning to my open hand. I spun low, slicing horizontally, and shredded two more of the creatures as they reached out for me. 

“Ready!” Cylinder yelled, and I ducked below a new storm of bullets, bodies dropping like flies around me. “Reloading!” 

I returned to my feet, pressing my palm against an approaching spider-face and emitting a small pulse, the transistor coils in my suit amplifying the electricity enough to deliver a lethal shock. Smoke rose from the spider as it reflexively constricted its legs, bursting its host’s head like a watermelon in its death throes. Rushing past the collapsing corpse, I slashed out with Pulsar, cutting through the spider-faced men.  

The harsh whispers of Cylinder’s revolvers grew closer, and I saw that he’d joined the fray next to me, replacing the Nagant in his left hand with his Bowie knife. Together, we carved a path through the creatures, downing them with blades and bolts and bullets. After a minute, we found ourselves surrounded by a sea of corpses, chests heaving as we tried to catch our breaths. 

“Whatever they were experimenting on,” Cylinder wheezed, “it looks like it got the better of them. We can’t let these things get out of this lab.” 

I nodded, activating my watch. “Textile! I need your help.” 

A brief pause, then Textile’s voice rang in my earpiece. “What’s up, kid?” 

“I’ve got a remote bypass with me,” I said, producing a small USB device. “Can you hack into these computers and activate some kind of purge protocol? A laboratory like this surely has one.” 

“I’ll do my best,” Textile replied. “Just make sure you two are out of these before it deploys.” 

Three of us,” Cylinder corrected as I inserted my remote bypass into a nearby computer port. “We don’t know that they took the girl. In fact, I don’t know that anyone had the chance to leave the lab since these spider-things escaped.” 

“Agreed,” I said, scanning the area again. To my slight surprise, faint bioelectric feedback triggered in my head, and I pointed at the door the spider-faced men had come through. “That way. Something is still alive.” 

We rushed into a new hallway, hurrying down the corridor towards what appeared to be a set of restrooms. As we approached them, four new spider-faced men appeared, but we were able to incapacitate them with our weapons before they could harm us. I kicked open the restroom door marked WOMEN’S, storming inside while Cylinder took watch in the hallway. 

“Hello?” I called, reaching out with my senses again. The bioelectric signature drew me to the second bathroom stall on the left, and I approached it. “Is someone in here?” 

I heard the slight whisper of feet sliding back against tiled floor, and I turned toward the stall door. 

“Don’t be scared. I’m not one of those things out there. I’m here to rescue survivors, particularly a young girl I saw being tortured in this laboratory.” 

A brief pause, then the stall door clicked as a latch on the other side was slid back. The door creaked open a little, and I saw a hazel eye peer out at me. 

“I’m not that young,” a girl’s voice weakly whispered. “I’m almost fifteen.” 

“Okay,” I conceded, “I’m not here to debate ages. I just want to make sure you survive the night.” 

The door opened the rest of the way, and an olive-skinned girl with long, black hair stumbled out, wearing a white, blood-splattered hospital gown. She collapsed into my arms, and I kept her on her feet with one arm, holstering Pulsar to better hold her.  

“What’s your name, chiquita?” I asked softly. 

“I . . .” she hesitated. “I can’t remember.” 

“Okay, okay,” I responded. “Climb on my back. I’ll carry you out of here.” 

“I’m hungry,” she said. “They don’t feed me well. I’m really dizzy.” 

“I got you,” I reassured her, crouching so she could crawl onto my back. I felt her bare feet dig into my hips, her spindly arms almost strangling me as they wrapped around my neck. “Maybe loosen your grip just a little bit, though.” 

She relaxed slightly, and I headed out of the bathroom, nodding at Cylinder. “Got her.” 

“Good,” he said, gesturing down an unventured hallway as he drew his second Nagant. “Because we have more friends coming.” 

A fresh horde of spider-faced men swarmed into sight, and the girl on my back screamed in my ear. I turned away from them, sprinting down the path back to the elevator as Cylinder opened fire. I almost slid as I turned into the lab, not yet accustomed to the girl’s added weight. A spider-faced man popped up in front of me, and I reflexively lashed out with a forward kick, delivering a lethal dose of electricity into the host body that propelled it across the room. It collapsed, smoking, and I pressed ahead, barely registering the faint tinkle of spent bullet casings splashing across the floor as Cylinder reloaded behind me. 

“Textile!” I yelled, my lungs aching as I sprinted. “Please tell me you have the purge protocol activated!” 

“Almost there,” he responded calmly. “But yelling isn’t going to speed up the process.” 

I gritted my teeth silently, turning a final corner and sprinting towards the elevator door. As I reached the metal barriers, I frantically pried them apart, pushing back into the elevator shaft. I turned around and saw Cylinder still at the other end of the hallway, sending a flurry of bullets into the spider-faced men. 

“Hey!” I called as he stopped to reload. “Multi-task!” 

He ran to us, filling his handguns with fresh bullets, and as he crossed the gap, he dropped to the floor, sliding the rest of the way into the shaft, simultaneously firing behind him. Another ten attackers fell from his onslaught before I could shove the door closed again. 

“Any time, Textile,” I whispered. 

An alarm sounded on the other side of the door, and I saw a red light flash through the cracks. A series of heavy thuds alerted us to the presence of the spider-faced men as they frantically tried to pry their way to us. The door began to pull apart, and Cylinder stuck a Nagant through the opening, firing into the crowd until they released it. I heard something hiss, and then a rush of crackling flame, the heat reaching us even through the thick metal doors. Dozens of shrill cries reached our ears, then all silenced at once, leaving us in smoke-filled darkness. 

“Better?” Textile asked. 

I sighed. “Yeah.” 

The girl on my back moaned. “I’m so hungry.” 

“Don’t worry,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. “We’ll get you some food as soon as we get out of here.” 

I felt her stomach gurgle against my back, and a pang of sympathy struck my heart. 

We spent the next few minutes scaling back up the ropes we’d left behind, pausing at the lowest parking garage level to pry open the elevator doors. Stumbling into the garage and returning the girl to her feet, we took a moment to catch our breaths, scanning the dark sea of cars for hostile movements. When none presented themselves, we pressed on, climbing the levels until we reached the main floor, making a beeline for our car. When we were within arm’s reach, though, the girl collapsed on the asphalt, groaning. 

“I can’t,” she whispered. “I’m so weak.” 

She raised her trembling hands, showing them to me. 

“You got, like, an energy bar in the car, or something?” I asked Cylinder, but as I turned to face him, a bioelectric signature flared to life near me. 

A pulse of life, large life, coming from within the girl. 

“I feel like I’m gonna–” she began, but never finished her sentence. 

The girl collapsed to the ground, stiffening her limbs with enough force for me to hear bones snap. As she arched her spine, the cracking continued, like the world’s most gruesome accordion. Blood poured from her mouth, and under the harsh lights of the hospital parking lot, I saw her eyes roll into the back of her head, leaving nothing but the whites. 

Cylinder and I immediately rushed to her aid, but as we touched her, sharp shards of something protruded from just under the skin, nearly slicing through our flesh. I backed away reflexively as green spines erupted from her epidermis, spraying the asphalt with blood. Something stirred within her midsection, inflating like a balloon, and she split in half like a coconut, gurgling in her own bodily fluids. A shadow rose from inside her remains, stretching three, six, nine, twelve feet into the air. The streetlights and stars mixed together, bathing the thing in white light. 

“Dios mío,” I croaked, my concern for the girl superseded by terror for my own fate. 

Stretching a dozen feet over our heads, mandibles clicking and antennae twitching, stood a green-shelled praying mantis. 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 9 – It Takes a Village 

The mantis hissed, lashing out at Cylinder with its scythe-like front appendages. His enhanced reflexes kicked in, and he rolled safely to the side, leaving behind the bug’s arms to bury into the asphalt. Hissing again, the mantis yanked its arms back into the air, turning to me this time. 

“Uh . . . what do I do?” I called nervously to Cylinder. 

“It’s a giant carnivorous insect that just killed the girl we were trying to rescue,” he yelled back. “What do you think?” 

Clenching my fist, I hurled Pulsar at the mantis’s head, but its carapace was too tough, and the circular blade bounced harmlessly away, spiraling back into my hand. I tumbled forward to avoid a horizontal swipe from the creature, swinging my weapon at its legs, but once again, I caused no visible damage. As I tried to back away, it wrapped its arms around me, squeezing me tight, and lifted me into the air. I saw its mandibles click together excitedly as I approached its mouth, and I hoarsely screamed. 

A barrage of bullets suddenly struck the mantis’s face, and one of them caught it in the eye, cracking one of its reflective lenses. The creature shrieked, dropping me, and I landed on my back with enough force to knock the wind out of me. Cylinder bore down on the mantis, unleashing hell with his twin revolvers, but by the time they’d emptied, the insect still stood tall. He frowned, and the mantis skittered forward in a blur, swiping at him and knocking him backwards into our car. Scrambling to his feet, he opened the passenger door and reached for the glove compartment, paying little attention to the mantis’s continued approach.  

“Hey!” I yelled, trying to buy the marksman a few seconds. “Over here, ugly!” 

The mantis twitched, looking at me, and I quickly charged Pulsar with my remaining energy, launching it into the creature’s midsection. Arcs of yellow electricity washed across its exoskeleton, seemingly stunning it for a moment, but it swiftly recovered, hissing at me as I summoned Pulsar back into my hand. I assumed a fighting stance, smirking at the beast. 

“Made you look.” 

The telltale click of a revolver hammer being thumbed drew the mantis’s attention back to Cylinder, who took aim with the massive Pfeifer-Zeliska he’d retrieved from the glove box. Before the insect could react, he fired a shot, sending a bullet through the air that imparted four tons of force into its head. A piece of the carapace above its eye flaked away, and it screeched again. This time, though, it abandoned its assault, opting instead to turn and scurry down the dimly-lit street. As it faded into the darkness, Cylinder sighed.  

“We’re going to have to stop it, aren’t we?” he dejectedly asked. 

I began to follow Cylinder as he gave chase, but I sensed someone in a nearby alley behind me. As their presence became known, a quiet voice floated through the air. 

“Turbine! Hey!” 

Spinning on my heels, I squinted at the darkness, but I saw no one within. Their aura, too, had faded, leaving nothing behind. 

“You coming?” Cylinder called impatiently, hefting his Pfeifer-Zeliska with both hands.  

I shot the alley one last glance before turning back around. “Yeah. Let’s swat this bug.” 

________________ 

We tracked the mantis through the alleyways of New General City, following the chunks of brick and asphalt it had carved out with its massive, spiny body. Fortunately, we managed to avoid encountering anyone else, and I hoped the same was true of the mantis. After half an hour, as I felt myself beginning to tire out from the footrace, I heard glass shatter in the distance, and traded a worried glance with Cylinder.  

Rushing around the corner of the building we’d been passing, we almost missed the shop that had been damaged: A little bakery labeled MA’S CAKES N’ PIES. The window, completely decimated, betrayed the mantis’s poor attempts at stealth, and within the shadows of the shop we saw the telltale green shell of the creature. Cylinder took aim with his revolver, but something caught my eye, and I grabbed his arm.  

“Wait a second. What’s it doing?” 

We both leaned closer, squinting into the bakery. The mantis hunched over the counter, clawing at the display case of massive, multi-layered cakes. As we watched, it cracked the glass, shoving its head inside and closing its mandibles around a red velvet cake. The icing smeared across its carapace, creating such a bizarre and unexpected visual that I couldn’t help but to stifle a laugh. After consuming the red velvet cake in seconds, the mantis moved on to what appeared to be a lemon cake, scarfing it down. 

“Should we . . . arrest it for shoplifting?” Cylinder asked me, lowering his revolver. 

“Do you have any handcuffs big enough?” I replied, shrugging my shoulders. 

Suddenly, the mantis twitched, seizing up so sharply that its head punched a hole in the bakery ceiling. We tensed, prepared for another conflict, but the mantis ignored us, lying flat on the ground. Steam rose from the flesh beneath its exoskeleton, and I saw green goo pool across the floor as the mantis began to liquefy. The outer shell of the creature pulled apart, tumbling across the bakery, and I sensed something new flare to life from within the remains. 

Something familiar. 

“I can’t believe it,” I gasped. 

Vaulting across the broken window and into the shop, I made a beeline for the drenched figure lying prone in the middle of the disjointed mantis shell. Along the way, I grabbed an old quilt that was mounted to the wall, presumably as decoration to add to the shop’s rustic charm. I reached my destination, tossing the quilt over the figure on the floor, and leaned close, speaking softly. 

“Are you okay?” I asked the girl who we’d rescued from the lab beneath the hospital. 

She looked at me, wrapped up in the quilt, eyes wide and frightened. “Where am I? What happened?” 

“You, uh . . .” I turned to see Cylinder approaching us, stepping gingerly across the broken glass. “You went through some kind of . . . transformation?” 

The girl looked around at the mantis’s remains. “Transformation?” 

“Yeah,” I nervously responded. “Probably a result of whatever Black Pharaoh’s goons were doing to you in that lab. If it’s okay, we’d like to bring you back to the safe house; maybe run some tests, to make sure this isn’t something that will happen again.” 

“Why?” Her eyes teared up. “Did I hurt someone?” 

I shook my head. “No. But I think you could have.” 

She sniffled, wiping the liquefied mantis flesh off her face. “Okay. I’ll come with you. I don’t want to hurt anyone.” 

Her eyes narrowed, and she corrected herself. “Well, except the men who hurt me.” 

________________ 

“Well?” I asked, trying to restrain the impatience in my voice. “What do the tests say?” 

Textile eyed me, opening the paper that one of our allies had dropped off a few minutes ago. 

It had been almost a day since we’d brought the girl back to the safe house, but she had not transformed again since her stay. Still, I was anxious to know if S.S.’s blood tests and body scans had picked up on anything to explain our experience outside the hospital. This girl deserved a normal life, not one haunted by what Black Pharaoh had done to her. 

“For the most part, she seems fine,” Textile began. “Healthy.” 

“I’m fine?” exclaimed the girl, who’d been listening nearby. “I don’t think so.” 

“Well, there is one thing,” Textile continued, glancing at her. “Were you diabetic before?” 

The girl frowned. “I don’t think so.” 

“Hmm.” Textile folded up the paper. “It appears that your cells have been mutated, able to spontaneously grow . . . something. A parasite, of sorts. And in the process, it attached itself to your blood sugar levels. If you get too hungry, it seems to trigger the transformation.” 

“That’s why the mantis went after the bakery,” commented Cylinder, sitting up in his chair. “It was trying to stabilize their shared metabolism. Once it returned to normal levels, she regrew from the mantis’s remains.” 

“Like a phoenix from ashes,” Piston added, biting into an apple.  

Textile chuckled. “Yes. How poetic.” 

“So, is there a way to cure me?” the girl asked. 

Textile sighed, shaking his head. “Maybe if there was a cure for diabetes. But pharmaceutical companies profit too much off insulin sales to ever allow such research to be done in earnest.” 

Tears welled in the girl’s eyes, and I felt a pang of guilt in my chest as she spoke through trembling lips. “What do I do, then?” 

“Well . . .” Textile hesitated, looking at us. 

“We’d have to get approval from S.S., in any scenario,” Piston began. “But . . .” 

“We can try to find your parents,” Cylinder interrupted. “Place all of you under witness protection. Can you remember anything? Anything at all?” 

The girl shook her head. “I still can’t even remember my name.” 

“That’s fair,” Piston said. “You’ve been through quite the crucible.” 

“Can I just . . . stay with you?” the girl asked. “You can make sure I don’t hurt anyone on accident.” 

I pondered the thought. “You’re so young, though. This isn’t a life I think you’re ready to–” 

“Please,” she quietly begged. “What else do I have? At least this way, you can help me get to the people who turned me into . . . this.” 

“I like the idea,” Piston remarked, tossing her apple core into a nearby trash can. “I was about her age when my grandfather started training me for the military.” 

“See?” The girl smiled. “Your boss said yes.” 

“Boss!” exclaimed Cylinder, snorting. 

Piston smirked. “Oh, I like her.” 

“You’ll need a name, though,” I insisted. “What would you like us to call you?” 

“Hmm . . .” she thought for a moment, then glanced at Piston. “What was the word you used before? When you were talking about what I went through?” 

“Oh,” Piston paused before responding. “I said you’d been through a crucible.” 

“Crucible.” the girl seemed to savor the word. “Yeah. Crucible. That’s what I want to be called.” 

“Rolls off the tongue,” Cylinder said dryly. “Welcome to the family, Crucible.” 

________________ 

I squared up to Crucible, raising my hands in half-hearted defense. “So, if you encounter an attacker, you want to make sure you–” 

Crucible darted forward, striking out with a surprisingly quick uppercut. I moved to block it, but the force of her punch belied her size, and I reflexively lashed out in response to the blow, punching her in the sternum and knocking her into a seated position. She coughed and winced, clutching her chest as I leaned forward, helping her back to her feet.  

“I’m so sorry,” I profusely apologized while she dusted herself off. “I was taken a little off-guard by how hard you hit.” 

“No worries,” she reassured me, cracking a smile. “What, you thought I’d hit like a girl?” 

I chuckled. “More like, you hit harder than any hundred-pound person should be able to.” 

“Maybe it’s the thing inside of me,” she speculated, “wanting to be free. It makes me stronger.” 

“It’s possible.” I shrugged. “Hopefully we don’t have to find out firsthand. This is just to protect you from the kind of enemies our team tends to make.” 

“Fuck that,” Cylinder interjected, joining us in the safe house’s gym. “The people who came for you, they could easily come back. Just like Turbine, and Textile, and myself, you have to play to your strengths if you’re going to survive.” 

Crucible cocked her head. “What do you mean?” 

“Well, to start, you’re strong, yeah? But, like, maybe ‘adult male’ strong. Your strength alone is not going to lead you to any successful fights against another SPI.” 

“So,” huffed Crucible, “what do I do?” 

Cylinder waved both arms at her. 

“Your hands – palms, knuckles, fingertips – they’re smaller, sharper, more agile. You should study Aikido, or a subset of the discipline. Your strength, combined with the size of your strikes, leaves you an ideal candidate for striking pressure points. Here, let me show you.” 

I grimaced, assuming a fighting stance in Cylinder’s direction. “You know, you’re a lot faster than me.” 

“But am I any stronger?” Cylinder asked. “Or more powerful?” 

Nodding, I ducked forward, clenching my right hand into a spinning back-fist. Cylinder moved like a leaf in a hurricane, drifting effortlessly beneath my attack and clutching my extended wrist between tense fingertips. I felt myself lose control of my arm as he twisted around, bending my arm in such a way that I flipped over his shoulder, my back slamming into the mat-covered floor. My teeth rattled, but I laughed, and Cylinder released my wrist. 

“You’ve got to teach me that one,” I wheezed.  

“Hey,” Crucible called, “me first!” 

“Yeah.” Cylinder winked at me. “Ladies first.” 

________________ 

“What are you guys doing?” Crucible asked the four of us, entering the room to see us huddled around a large computer monitor. 

“Learning about the enemy,” Piston absently replied, clicking through the frames of the video S.S. had sent us. 

Crucible hopped up onto the desk, twisting to look at the monitor. “What enemy?” 

I glanced up at her. “You familiar with Erica Leroux, the singer?” 

Her eyes lit up. “Yeah! She sings that one, song, uh . . . ‘you make me miserable lately . . .’” 

“’Mr. Mystery,’” Piston interrupted. “That’s the one.” 

“Well,” I continued, “we have encountered some . . . obstacles . . . in the last few weeks which lead us to believe that she is involved, either directly or indirectly, with a scheme to subliminally control people into committing various crimes.” 

“Really!” Crucible peered down at the monitor again. “What’s this black-and-white video have to do with it?” 

“It’s security footage, from her recording studio,” Textile explained. “While the four of us have been helping you settle in, our benefactor sent a SWAT team to arrest Ms. Leroux where our sources told us she’d be alone.” 

“Was she?” asked the girl. 

Textile shook his head. “She wasn’t there. But someone else was, someone we don’t know anything about. He was waiting for them. We think he’s sending a message: ‘Don’t come for Leroux.’” 

Crucible made eye contact with each of us, her expression expectant. 

“I don’t know,” Cylinder cautioned. “This is pretty violent.” 

“I just had a giant praying mantis rip me in half last week,” Crucible retorted. “Spare me.” 

Piston sighed, pressing PLAY. 

The grainy footage showed a team of eight men in body armor, wielding what appeared to be sub-machine guns, breaching the first floor of the recording studio. They made their way in a line down a narrow hallway, swiveling to cover each other. As the last SWAT infiltrator entered the building, something darted between him and the person in front of him, passing between two open doorways. The man clutched his throat, blood spraying from an arterial wound as he dropped to the ground, lifeless. 

Crucible’s eyes widened. “What was that?” 

Piston rewound the footage, playing it back frame-by-frame. Even at the slowest speed, we could hardly identify the blur as humanoid in nature. 

“Just keep watching,” Textile insisted, and Piston returned the video to normal. 

On the footage, the second-to-last SWAT member must have heard his comrade fall, because he spun around, calling out at his dead teammate. Suddenly, an arrow punched through the drywall to his right, spearing into his skull and pinning him to the other side of the hallway. Now the others were on alert, rapidly retreating into the more open lobby area beyond the hall. 

“Do we have other angles?” Crucible asked. “Other cameras, to see who’s doing it?” 

“Smart question,” Piston replied, “but unfortunately not. The building’s security system was subpar, at best.” 

“Don’t worry,” said Cylinder. “There’s more.” 

The remaining six SWAT infiltrators hurried into the lobby, forming a tight circle, guns pointed outward like an ancient Greek phalanx. Piston switched camera feeds, showing a widened view of their new environment. 

From the shadows of the security video emerged a man in padded, full-body armor, with a mouthless balaclava and dark eye-lenses obscuring all facial features. The chest of the armor housed the icon of an eight-legged spider, the silhouette as large as a dinner plate. Around his armor, the man wore a large fur coat, its thickness obscuring his exact size and dimensions. 

As the SWAT team turned to face the newcomer, he dashed at them, flicking his wrists from his sides. A spray of gleaming shuriken showered the air like shotgun pellets, biting into the two closest SWAT members with enough force to send them sprawling backwards. The other four members opened fire with their automatic weapons, but the man shifted effortlessly from side-to-side, avoiding most of the bullets while his coat seemed to soak up the ones who found their target. 

Still approaching the team, the man flicked his wrists again, and this time I registered that he was reaching into the folds of his coat at impossible speeds. As his hands emerged, he produced a pair of hatchets, hurling one directly into the face of the closest SWAT member. The blade buried into the shooter’s skull, and as he fell, the stranger twirled around the stream of gunfire, ricocheting the second hatchet off the floor, up against the nearest wall, and diagonally into the trigger-finger of one of the remaining SWAT members. As the shooter’s severed fingers fell to the floor, the coat-clad assassin closed the gap between them, shoving a long knife through his jugular. 

With two standing SWAT members and two recovering from the shuriken barrage on the floor, the assassin switched his stance, retrieving what appeared to be a butcher knife, and as he leapt at the standing pair of SWAT members, his arms twitched in a blur, the flat of the blade deflecting the bullets at nearly point-blank range. He brought the knife down on one of the men, severing their arm near the elbow, and as the man dropped his weapon in agony, the assassin lashed out like a snake, decapitating the final unharmed SWAT member. 

“Holy shit,” Crucible murmured, scrunching up her eyebrows. “You see stuff like this a lot?” 

We all remained quiet, watching the video play out. 

The SWAT member with the freshly-removed arm staggered away from the carnage, his stump leaking a concerning amount of blood. The assassin extended his arm in the escapee’s direction, revealing a small crossbow retrofitted with some kind of magazine at the bottom. He pulled the trigger once, sending a pointed bolt directly into the base of the fleeing man’s neck. As the man fell, the assassin took aim at the shuriken-covered pair on the floor, executing them with the crossbow as well. 

The assassin melted back into the shadows, and the security footage stopped, leaving us in stunned silence. 

“What do we know about this man?” I finally croaked, pausing to clear my throat before continuing. “Do we know anything?” 

“Only what the other officers are calling him,” Piston said. “’Huntsman.’” 

________________ 

 Piston, Cylinder and I watched from the edge of Textile’s workshop as he sat down with Crucible, holding a package in his hands.  

“Crucible,” he said, offering her the package, “you’ve been with us for a few weeks now. I’m not sure when, where or how we’ll need you, but we’ve all talked to each other, and we agree that it’s important to . . . respect . . . your condition. You’re driven to help people, and we want you to help them any way you can.” 

“That means using the mantis?” Crucible cautiously asked, taking the package from the man. 

Textile nodded. “We’ve been studying your biology, considering how to make your mantis transformations viable in our line of work, if you still feel the same way you did two weeks ago.” 

Crucible nodded. “I do.” 

“Okay. Open it, please.” 

She tore into the package, revealing a small, hooded, armored cloak reminiscent of Textile’s; hers, however, was indigo rather than blue. Eyes widening in excitement, Crucible swung the cloak over her shoulders, and a series of magnetic clasps automatically pulled together, covering her neck and body with a sort of flexible, armored dress beneath the cloak. She looked down at her attire, then up at Textile quizzically. 

“Well, we can’t give you normal clothes,” he explained. “Then, you’re just running around nude when you transform back. We can’t have that, of course.” 

Crucible tugged at her dress-cloak, pulling away one of the magnetic clasps before allowing it to fall back into place. “What makes this different?” 

Smiling, Textile tapped the base of his neck. “Your transformation cycle has what I call a ‘spawn point.’ An early gestation period, in which the mantis develops within your body, and your body develops within the mantis. Both begin at the tip of your spinal cord, and though the mantis that emerges from you is much larger than any of us, its neck and head grows out of that point.” 

“Oh.” Crucible cocked her head. “So, whatever I wear around my neck, the mantis also wears?” 

Textile pointed at her. “Exactly. Your ‘costume,’ for lack of a better word, dismantles itself along the rest of your body when you transform, leaving a neck brace that rides on the mantis and reassembles when you turn back into yourself.” 

“That’s beautiful, mate,” Piston spoke up. “I applaud your ingenuity.” 

Cupping his hand to his ear, Textile retorted, “I hear no applause.” 

Piston rolled her eyes as Textile continued speaking to Crucible. 

“Now, there’s also the matter of controlling the transformations, as well as the mantis itself. For the former, we’ve decided to take advantage of what the mantis needs. To induce hunger and lower your blood sugar levels enough to trigger the mantis, S.S. has employed some trustworthy chemists to manufacture a special progesterone tablet. When it’s time to pull you back, we’ll all carry concentrated glucose tablets, and one of us will feed the mantis a tablet to sate its hunger.” 

“Wow,” Crucible whispered. “How do you know this will work?” 

Textile chuckled. “We don’t, for sure. Why do you think we’re in my workshop?” 

Her eyes widened. “I’m going to transform now? What if I hurt someone?” 

“Well,” I said, stepping forward, “that’s what I’m here to try to prevent.” 

I pointed at a utility belt clasped around my waist, the circular buckle adorned by a ring of inactive glass panels. 

“What’s that for?” Crucible asked. 

“As I understand, many insects use various spectrums of ultraviolet light to communicate and navigate,” I responded, glancing at Textile for confirmation. He nodded, and I continued. “This UV emitter, combined with my bioelectric abilities, turns me into a beacon, of sorts. The idea is, I tell the mantis what to do, and the emitter translates that into a series of pulses the mantis will feel compelled to follow.” 

“The idea, huh?” Crucible skeptically commented. 

I shrugged. “We’ll test it here, before we apply the device to the real world. Obviously.” 

Taking a deep breath, Crucible asked, “So, when do we start?” 

Textile reached out and opened the girl’s palm, dropping a small progesterone tablet into the center. “Right now, if you’d like.” 

Clutching the tablet in her hand, Crucible gazed at the four of us, and we offered reassuring nods. She sighed, tossing it into her mouth and swallowing. A few seconds passed in silence before she spoke again. 

“How long do you think it’s–” 

Suddenly, she doubled over, bones audibly cracking. Blood pooled on the floor around her, and from beneath her indigo cloak, something larger than herself began to stir. Textile, Cylinder and Piston readied themselves, and I activated the UV emitter on my belt, trying to contain my nerves.  

“Here it comes, ladies and gentlemen,” announced Piston. 

The cloaked figure rose tall, taller than Crucible, and we saw flashes of green from within. I cleared my throat, ready to issue a command . . . 

Then, with a thunderous roar, the walls around us caved in, and a new hell appeared. 


Welcome to New General City, Pt. 10 – Lifeguard on Duty 

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. 

TEXTILE. 

“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? 

Phase V — Beginning of the End

Death on the Station 

The endless expanse of stars stretched in front of Liam beyond the transparent window, prickling the cold black like moth holes in an old sweater. He placed his hand on the glass, shivering, imagining what it would be like to float out into the unforgiving vacuum. Pulling away, he held his arms behind his back, regaining his composure. 

You worked hard to be here, especially at only sixteen, he thought to himself. Act professional. 

“Space,” a deep voice boomed behind him dramatically. “The final frontier.” 

Liam rolled his eyes and turned to face his father, a large, stout, bearded man. When Liam was younger, he’d often suspected the jolly man to be one of Santa’s helpers, or even Santa himself, in disguise. As he’d grown, though, he came to realize that his father was a far greater man than that. 

“This isn’t the Enterprise, dad,” he chastised. “This is the ISS. This is real. Can you believe it?” 

His father chuckled, joining him at the window. “I know what you mean. It feels like a dream, or an out-of-body experience. Reminds me of my college party years, if you know what I mean.” 

“You know I don’t,” Liam giggled. “What’s on the agenda today?” 

“Well, Captain Kennedy mentioned that your mice were looking a little sleepier than normal,” his father commented. “Whatever that means.” 

Liam raised an eyebrow. “Sleepier? What was he the captain of, again?” 

His father stifled another laugh, tussling Liam’s hair. “Be respectful. We can’t walk back home, can we?” 

________________ 

About thirty minutes later, Liam sat before his biology project, examining his trio of mice. After arriving at the space station, each animal had been infected with a different non-lethal, species-appropriate version of a common disease: Influenza, conjunctivitis, and mononucleosis. Liam meant to study the evolution of the diseases in such a foreign environment, with the hope of applying his findings back on Earth against more modern, deadly illnesses. 

“Well?” Captain Kennedy asked, his voice firm. “Is your mission a failure?” 

Liam sighed, exasperated. “Not necessarily. It looks like the mono has spread from Mortimer to also infect Mickey and Minnie. It’s possible that the station’s new artificial gravity system is affecting how the virus spreads in some way. I just need to update my parameters to properly account for such a change.” 

He glanced over his shoulder at the man. “Is micro-managing me the best use of your time, though?” 

Kennedy’s face began to redden, but Commander Kozlov walked up behind him, placing her hand on his shoulder. 

“Leave our little friend alone with his mice, okay?” the tall, muscular blonde said to her comrade. “He’s kind of right. Let his father manage the logistics.” 

“Okay,” Kennedy agreed, turning to Liam. “But don’t mess around with them too much, okay? I don’t want to catch the flu or pink eye up here.” 

Liam nodded. “You got it.” 

Bao and Fen, the twin astronauts and last two current inhabitants of the International Space Station, approached the captain, muttering to him about some irregular data on their solar panel readings. He shook his head, excusing himself from the conversation. As he walked away, Kozlov smiled at Liam. 

“He seems big now, but that’s just the outer shell of his matryoshka. Inside is a much smaller man, who just wants to be important.” 

Liam blushed, forcing aside his childish crush on the woman to focus on her words. “Thanks for standing up for me, anyway.” 

She leaned over, winking quickly. “Any time. Just keep your little hospital in check, okay?” 

Liam nodded again, more fervently this time, and she turned away, leaving the room. 

“Everything okay?” Liam’s father asked from behind, causing Liam to jump. He turned around, clutching his chest. 

“You nearly scared me to death,” he scolded his father. “Yes, just a little hiccup in the experiment. Nothing crazy.” 

“Well, I know you got . . . this . . .” his father’s speech began to weaken, and he took a step back, clutching his arm. He began to breathe rapidly, and within seconds, his eyes rolled into the back of his head. Falling to the floor, he became still.  

Too still. 

“Dad? Dad!” Liam cried, rushing to his father’s side. 

Captain Kennedy and the twin astronauts turned toward the commotion, the former running to join Liam. “Mr. Casper? Are you okay?” 

Bao and Fen approached, and Fen turned the prone man onto his back. 

“He’s having a heart attack,” she announced. “Grab the med kit!” 

“Dad,” Liam whispered, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please be okay, dad.” 

In the corner of his eye, he saw Captain Kennedy’s face grow ashen white, and the man backed away from the scene, visibly trembling. Commander Kozlov finally returned to the room, and upon realization of what had happened, she pulled Liam away while Bao and Fen worked on his father. Liam buried his face in her arms, a knowing dread growing in his chest. 

After several minutes, Liam felt his sorrow and his tears slowly fade, and by the time Fen approached him with the news of his father’s death, he’d already reached a cold acceptance. They expressed their condolences and discussed the logistics of what to do with his body until returning to Earth, but he felt detached from the moment, a wandering spirit haunting the vacuum of space. When they finally excused him, he numbly drifted through the halls of the space station until he found his room, collapsing into his bed. His consciousness soon faded, and before he knew it, he was asleep. 

________________ 

A soft knock at his door pulled him from a deep slumber, and he looked around, his eyes settling on his bedside clock. 

I’ve been asleep for five hours? he thought in surprise.  

Shuffling off his covers, he climbed out of bed, staggering to the door. He opened it to see Commander Kozlov standing on the other side, her face gentle and empathetic.  

“Hey,” she said. “We haven’t heard from you in a while. We’re about to cryo-freeze Mr. Casper until we’re able to get you a shuttle home.” 

Liam sniffled, shaking his head. “No. I want to stay. Take his body home, but he would want me to see the mission through.” 

Kozlov nodded, turning to leave, then hesitated, returning her attention to the boy. “Hey, come with me.” 

Sighing, Liam followed her out of his room, traveling down the halls of the ISS and stopping in front of the viewing window where he’d began his morning. He looked out at the stars, his wonder replaced by hollow emptiness. 

“I don’t know if these words will be of any comfort to you,” Commander Kozlov began, “but it’s always comforted me.” 

Liam looked up at the woman, waiting for her to continue. 

“If there was ever a place to pass away, this was it,” she explained. “The perfect vision of our endless march towards the future. Your father, he was a man of the past. A great man of the past, but a man of the past nonetheless. His passing may be painful now, but he’s given you an incredible freedom: The uninhibited pursuit of your future.” 

Liam’s head fell forward gently, clunking against the glass window, and he began to sob, wrapping his arms around his chest. Kozlov patted him on the back, waiting for him to relax. Eventually, he straightened up, wiping his face.  

“You’re right, Commander,” he responded. “I have a long future of great things ahead of me. I can’t . . .” 

His words faded as movement amongst the stars caught his eye. “Did you see that?” 

Kozlov turned her attention from the boy to the window, tilting her head. “I don’t see any– wait. What is that?” 

Approaching the station drifted about a dozen large, black objects, their exteriors slick and glistening, as if covered in oil. Because of the darkness of space, their exact shapes and movements were difficult for Liam to identify, but it was undeniable. 

Something was approaching the International Space Station. 

The door to their hallway slid open, and Bao ran up to them, panting. “Our scanners are going haywire. There must be some kind of glitch. I just came to see if . . .” 

His head turned toward the viewing window, and his jaw dropped. “So, it’s true. There is something coming to us.” 

“Bao, what are they?” Liam asked. “What do you know, based on your scans?” 

“Nothing,” he whispered, staring at the approaching objects. “Absolutely nothing.” 

Kozlov retrieved a communicator from her belt, speaking into it. “Captain Kennedy, we have a situation. Several objects approaching us from outer space; origin and makeup unclear. Please advise.” 

No response, for a moment. Then, Kennedy’s voice crackled through faintly. “Prepare for imminent attack.” 

Bao, Kozlov, and Liam all traded confused glances, and Kozlov responded to Kennedy’s command. “You want us to treat this as hostile? Why?” 

“Just do it, Commander!” barked Kennedy. “This is life or death.” 

Liam looked up at Kozlov. “Do we even have any weapons here?” 

“My country required it,” Kozlov admitted, sighing. “For self-defense, in the event that our re-entry is compromised and we land in the wilderness. Our Soyuz capsule has two types of handguns, along with a survival kit, including a machete and a folding knife. Not exactly an armory.” 

“Better than nothing,” Bao commented. “Is it still docked?” 

Kozlov nodded, suspicion in her voice. “Let’s get going before these things arrive. Kennedy sounded pretty spooked.” 

The trio trekked across the station, heading for the airlock that connected to the Soyuz space capsule. With each window they passed, the objects drew closer, and by the time they’d almost reached their destination, Bao paused, staring at them. 

“Are those animals?” he asked.  

Liam and Commander Kozlov stopped, joining him at the window. 

Sure enough, the things that approached were now close enough to ascertain their dimensions: Long, clawed arms and legs, with large wings webbed between each side, almost like large bats. The heads, however, were long, pointed, and angular, reminding Liam more of a pterodactyl than a bat. 

An oil-black, car-sized pterodactyl, drifting through space. With a dozen of its friends heading straight for the station. 

Bao pulled out a notepad and his Fisher Space Pen to jot down the moment, glancing back up occasionally to monitor their approach. Kozlov tried to pull him away, but he shook his head. 

“No. This may be the first real evidence of intelligent life ever. I want to study them. You two go get the supplies and meet me back here.” 

Kozlov gritted her teeth, about to reprimand the astronaut, but Liam tugged at her arm, shaking his head. 

“The sooner we get to the Soyuz capsule, the sooner we can come back to Bao,” he calmly explained. 

She relaxed, nodding, and pointed down the hall. “It’s docked right over there.” 

They turned the corner, reaching the door separating them from the capsule. Kozlov entered her key code, and the door hissed as it opened, exposing them to the Soyuz’s cramped interior. As they climbed inside, the door sealed behind them, and they fumbled around for a moment before the lights flickered on. Liam almost tripped and fell into a pair of hanging space suits, but Kozlov caught him. 

“The survival kit should be under that seat there,” she said. “Grab the machete and the knife.” 

As he retrieved a long, flat case from beneath the nearby seat, she opened a metal lockbox on the wall, producing a small, compact pistol as well as a longer, two-barreled handgun. He watched her load bullets into a pair of magazines for the former pistol, but the other gun drew more of his attention, and his eyes met hers inquisitively.  

“Cosmonaut survival pistol,” she explained. “More versatile than this Makarov here. Chambered for rifle, shotgun, and flare rounds. We’ll grab all the bullets we can carry, but for now, I’m loading the shotgun shells.” 

She broke open the breech, sliding a shell into each barrel. Snapping it shut, she offered it to a wide-eyed Liam. When he failed to take it from her, she chuckled. 

“Just for safekeeping. Keep the business end away from my pretty face, please.” 

He took the weapon by its grip, hefting it as she finished loading the Makarov’s magazines and stuffed the Cosmonaut pistol cartridges into her pockets. Movement in a nearby porthole caught his attention, and he moved to the window, peering out. Once his eyes adjusted to the commotion outside, he gasped. 

“Commander. Take a look.” 

She joined him at the porthole, and her lips parted in surprise. Snatching her communicator from her hip, she screamed into it. “Bao, what are you doing? Get away from the window!” 

Outside, perpendicular to the Soyuz capsule, Liam could see the window where they’d left Bao. The exterior now swarmed with the pterodactyl-beasts, who crawled around quickly, as if agitated. Liam barely made out Bao behind the reinforced glass, still taking notes, his face glowing in fascination. As Liam watched, one of the creatures reared back, striking its beaklike face against the window. At first, nothing happened, but as it struck again, Liam saw hairline cracks forming on the glass like spiderwebs.  

“Bao, do you copy?” Kozlov cried. “God damn it!” 

The creature pecking at the glass attempted a third time . . . with horrific results. 

Its mouth broke through the transparent barrier, clamping around Bao’s head and jerking him out into space. The other creatures swarmed on the astronaut, pulling at his appendages until nothing remained but floating bits of blood and viscera.  

“Zaebis,” Kozlov swore in Russian. 

Immediately, Liam felt the Soyuz capsule rumble, and he looked back at the window, horrified. The glass exploded outward as the breached hallway rapidly depressurized, the force of the event warping the metal. The hallway twisted, crumpling like an old balloon, and Liam heard the door separating the damaged zone from their capsule screech. After a few seconds, the hallway finished releasing its atmosphere, destroyed beyond repair. 

“Oh, no,” Kozlov whispered, turning to the door as the artificial gravity in their sector failed and they floated up into the air. “No, no.” 

She pulled at the lever to open it, but it resisted, and she slammed her fist against the metal, growling. Turning to Liam, she took a deep breath. 

“The damage done outside has likely clamped the seal around the Soyuz door. We’re stuck in here.” 

Liam glanced back outside, where the pterodactyl-creatures drifted through space, gulping down Bao’s remains. Pivoting in a tight circle, he stopped when he saw the two space suits in the corner. 

“Maybe not,” he responded, pointing to the suits. “Do you think we could still eject the capsule to force the door open?” 

“Yes,” Kozlov responded, “but that will propel us away from the station. How are we going to get back . . .” 

Her words drifted off as she saw Liam looking at the Makarov still in her hand, and she smiled. 

“You absolute genius. I see they’re still teaching Newton’s third law of motion in high school.” 

Liam nodded. “What we came here for to defend ourselves can also be our way back to safety. Two birds, one stone.” 

Kozlov looked out the porthole at the creatures floating nearby. “I wish there were only two birds.” 

They quickly donned their space suits, strapping their gear to the exterior. Kozlov gave Liam the machete and the various cartridges for the Cosmonaut pistol, while she inserted the first Makarov magazine into her own gun, slipping the second magazine into her pocket along with the folding knife. Lastly, she retrieved a long prybar from the case, slipping it onto her back. As Liam sealed his helmet shut, she racked the Makarov’s slide, chambering a round. 

“This will be fun,” she said, seemingly attempting to reassure herself more than Liam. “Like Buzz Lightyear riding that bottle rocket.” 

“Wasn’t he tied to that rocket against his will?” Liam asked. 

She shot him a stern look. “Shut up, kid.” 

Raising the Cosmonaut pistol, he gestured to the damaged door. “You ready?” 

“Nope,” she replied, slamming her fist down on the EJECT button. 

A horrific cry of tearing metal filled Liam’s ears as the Soyuz capsule forced itself away from the space station, the door ripping apart in the process. They jettisoned forward, immediately exposed to the vacuum of space, the little atmosphere left in the capsule rushing past them to dissipate into nothingness. By the time even a second passed, Liam could barely see the broken windows of the ISS from the distance he’d traveled. 

“Jump!” Commander Kozlov screamed, her voice blaring through his helmet’s speakers. 

He leapt through the torn hole of the capsule, and she followed. As they floated into the blackness, everything beyond the sound of his own breathing fell deathly silent. Ahead, the blue marble of a planet he once called home loomed in his vision. 

“Okay, Liam, I’m not going to pretend like we’ve tried this before,” Kozlov admitted. “But we can make some educated guesses. Keep your gun close to your chest, and only fire when you’re aiming exactly away from the direction you want to go. If these . . . these . . . Zvezdnyye Padal’shchiki come after you, don’t let your panic pressure you into making a decision that leaves you stranded in space. Just leave those to me.” 

Liam took a deep breath. “Got it.” 

Glancing over his shoulder, he lined up his shot, aiming the barrel of his gun toward Earth. He pulled the trigger, and the Cosmonaut pistol bucked, a spray of lethal pellets blasting forward, making no sound in this alien environment. The force of the shot, though, sent him rocketing backward, his body careening towards the International Space Station. 

As he sailed through the twilight nothingness, his rapid heartbeat echoing in his ears, he saw Kozlov follow suit with her Makarov handgun, clutching it close to her body and firing. The muzzle flashed, and she began to travel in the same direction as Liam. Her nervous chuckle crackled over the speaker in his helmet, and she looked back at him.  

“We’ll make it. We’ll make it. We have to.” 

He felt the presence of the enormous station looming behind him, and he dared to take another peek. At this point, he only had a few meters between himself and the makeshift entrances the creatures had made. 

Creatures which he was about to meet face-to-face. 

The oil-black beasts twitched, turning his way as he floated into their makeshift den. He felt bits of Bao’s bones patter against his suit, and the pterodactyl-creatures spread their wings, drifting his way. His breathing shuddered, and he steeled himself for their sharp, unforgiving beaks. 

“Don’t forget!” Kozlov called out sharply. “You have another round. Make it count.” 

Liam exhaled, keeping his gun pointed away from himself. The closest creature circled him menacingly, preparing to strike, and his finger tightened on the trigger. When it changed course, soaring directly for his face, he fired again, the second barrel flashing. More pellets emerged in a tight cluster, shredding a hole in the approaching creature’s left wing. It opened its mouth to silently screech as thick, green fluid emerged from the wound. 

The force of the second gunshot was more than enough to jettison Liam the rest of the way through the broken windows and into the depressurized hallway of the ISS. He turned at the last second, using his legs to break his collision into the far side of the metal hallway wall. Returning his attention back outside, he saw Commander Kozlov close behind, though the creatures were already converging on her. She opened fire on them with the Makarov, seemingly forgetting in her panic that each randomly-aimed gunshot was sending her further and further off-course. 

“Commander!” Liam yelled into his transmitter. “Stop fighting! Just get back inside with me!” 

The creatures fluttered around Kozlov as her bullets tore holes in their bodies, and one particularly brave beast managed to close in enough to receive the business end of her folding knife into its skull. She grabbed the flailing thing, kicking off of it to redirect herself back toward the station. Lining up her Makarov once more, she fired repeatedly, straight ahead into the swarm, until the magazine emptied. Then, much to Liam’s relief, she breached the station’s windows, landing next to him. 

“Sorry, kid,” she apologized, gathering her composure. “I lost it a little out there.” 

They turned toward the neared hallway door, and she lowered the Makarov, retrieving her prybar with her free hand. 

“Captain Kennedy,” she called out calmly. “I’m sure you can still see us.” 

“I can, Commander,” Liam heard the man respond. “That was quite the show.” 

“I’m going to pry open this door,” she announced, aiming her prybar at the incoming barrier. “I need you to depressurize and repressurize the hallway segments until we’ve put some distance between ourselves and the Zvezdnyye Padal’shchiki.” 

“You got it,” Kennedy said. “I’ve got your back.” 

Liam saw Kozlov roll her eyes, and she disconnected her communicator, gesturing for him to do the same.  

“You called them that again,” Liam commented. “Zuh-vez-nee . . .” 

“Zvezdnyye Padal’shchiki,” repeated Kozlov as she ejected the empty Makarov magazine. “Just a nickname I’m giving them. It means ‘Star Scavengers.’” 

“Star Scavengers.” Liam turned to look at the wounded creatures, who already seemed to be regrouping for another attack. “He knew, Commander. The Captain already knew these things were dangerous.” 

“Let’s rendezvous with Kennedy and Fen,” Kozlov snarled, loading her Makarov’s second magazine. “I think our fearless leader owes us some answers.” 

________________ 

Commander Kozlov slammed Captain Kennedy into the wall, shoving the Makarov in his face. 

“You aren’t telling us everything,” she quietly growled. “What do you know about those things outside?” 

Kennedy shifted his gaze. “I don’t know what you’re . . .” 

His words trailed off as his eyes met hers again, and he sighed. “Okay, okay. Let me go and I’ll explain.” 

Kozlov backed off, keeping the gun trained on the man. Liam did the same with his Cosmonaut pistol, looking around the room. In the corner, Fen watched the Star Scavengers on the scanners, her eyes red and wet from mourning the death of her twin brother. Kennedy brushed himself off, sitting in a nearby chair. 

“In 1958,” he began, “the United States launched a monkey named Gordo from the NASA site in Cape Canaveral. Five minutes into his ascension, Gordo broke through the Earth’s atmosphere, entering outer space. Over the next two minutes, the vital monitors indicated fading signs of life, until he passed away at the seven-minute mark. The scientists believe that the air supply was improperly applied, and that Gordo suffocated in space.” 

He paused, but Kozlov impatiently gestured with her Makarov for him to continue. 

“More interestingly, though, was the immediate result. Before Gordo’s capsule could re-enter the atmosphere, something redirected it out into space. Something from space took Gordo’s body. It took him.” 

Liam and Kozlov exchanged glances. 

“After covering up Gordo’s death and disappearance as an equipment malfunction, the U.S. government worked with other countries to learn more about the phenomenon,” Kennedy explained. “They discovered that, just one year prior, the Soviet Union’s prize dog, Laika, experienced a similar fate. Died in space, quickly taken by an unknown entity afterwards.” 

“Let me guess,” Kozlov interrupted. “You started sending more innocent animals into space as sacrifices in the name of discovery.” 

“Not us, actually,” Kennedy replied, looking at Fen. “We let China do the heavy lifting. After about a decade of experimentation, their final test using the dog subjects known as Little Leopard and Shan Shan gave us conclusive evidence that there were, in fact, lifeforms capable of surviving and thriving in the vacuum of space. Lifeforms such as the ones outside the station right now.” 

“Zvezdnyye Padal’shchiki,” Kozlov muttered. 

“Star Scavengers,” added Liam. 

Fen finally turned to face Kennedy. “What are they? Why are they here? They’re currently circling the cryo bay. Why?” 

Kennedy hung his head. “They’re after Mr. Casper’s body.” 

“My father?” Liam asked. “What do they want from him?” 

“They’re scavengers, just like you said,” Kennedy responded. “Like vultures, but bigger and meaner. That’s what drew them to our attention in the first place: Death. Laika, Gordo, Little Leopard, Shan Shan . . . each of their deaths attracted the attention of a Star Scavenger. But once they’re there, they don’t discriminate. They’ll consume the dead and the living alike.” 

“What else do you know about them, biologically?” Kozlov demanded. “What are their weaknesses?” 

“Weaknesses?” scoffed Kennedy. “These things are old. They’re survivors, like alligators. If they have weaknesses, they won’t be easy to exploit.” 

“Why do they even have wings?” Liam commented. “That’s not how space flight works at all.” 

Fen chimed in softly. “Maybe they’re so old, so foreign, that they’ve evolved past the limitations of conventional physics.” 

A loud screech, followed by a shuddering bang, sounded nearby, just beyond the room. Liam saw his test mice, Micky and Minnie, panic as they squeaked, bouncing around their cages. Mortimer, however, lay still, and Liam frowned. 

“What was that?” Kozlov asked, turning to Fen. 

Fen returned to the monitors. “Another breach. The hallway just beyond our doors. It’s depressurizing.” 

“Close the blast shields,” barked Kennedy. “Don’t let them flock into the station.” 

Fen looked to Kozlov for approval, who nodded. As she turned to the control panel, something heavy slapped against the outer door with a resounding whack. The reverberations echoed throughout the room, and the four astronauts looked at each other, frightened. Another whack, and this time, the door began to cave inwards. 

Liam’s trembling hands returned his attention to the Cosmonaut pistol he still carried, and an idea began to form. 

“There’s no sound in space,” he muttered. 

Kozlov looked at him. “Come again?” 

“There’s no sound in space,” he repeated. “Nothing to hear.” 

Fen caught on first. “And there’s no air currents to transmit scents.” 

Kozlov slapped her forehead. “And it’s too dark to properly see.” 

“What’s something still measurable in space that we know animals can sense?” asked Liam. 

“Thermal changes,” Kozlov answered, snatching the Cosmonaut pistol from his hands. Reaching down, she rummaged around the pockets of his discarded astronaut suit, retrieving two flare cartridges. “They sense death by viewing thermal changes. They literally come for the body as it’s growing cold. And we froze your father. That’s why there’s so many.” 

She turned to Fen. “Is the hallway sealed on the other side?” 

Fen nodded. 

“How many are there?” pressed Kozlov. 

Fen glanced at the sensors. “Just one stray. The others are still going after Mr. Casper.” 

“Good,” Kozlov said, loading the flare cartridges. “Open the door.” 

“Are you sure–” Fen began, but Kozlov shot her a glare. Nodding, she reached down, unlocking the barrier separating the predator from the prey. 

The door exploded open, and the Star Scavenger that Liam had shot earlier burst into the room, the hole in its wing still leaking green fluid. It opened its mouth and screeched, the cry hoarse and painful, as if its throat wasn’t meant to make the noise. Leaping into the air, it soared around the room in a circle, its wings straight out at its sides without generating any noticeable air current. Turning its attention to Liam’s mouse cage, it hurtled toward the spot, mouth agape. 

Mortimer, Liam thought. It’s going after Mortimer. He died . . . somehow. 

Kozlov intervened, stepping in front of the rampaging creature and firing a flare from the Cosmonaut pistol into its face. It screamed again, its head vibrating rapidly as it tried to process the sudden temperature spike from the self-oxidating incendiary device. Removing the Makarov from her pocket, Kozlov tried to fire at the Star Scavenger close-range, but it thrashed around, one of its wings smacking her and sending her flying across the room. She struck the far wall and crumpled to the ground, both guns ejecting from her grip and sliding in opposite directions across the floor. 

“Commander Kozlov!” Liam cried, but the woman didn’t respond.  

Frowning, he turned to the blinded beast, unsheathing his machete. The flare began to fade, and the creature twitched, noticing Liam. Rushing forward, Liam cried out, swinging his blade, but his disorientation from the recent switch back to artificial gravity caused him to trip, and he fell on his face, the weapon clattering out of his hand. The Star Scavenger stalked toward him, screeching its hoarse, pained cry, and reared back, ready to disembowel Liam. 

Gunfire exploded from behind the boy, and the Star Scavenger hissed, retreating as tiny holes exploded out of it flesh. Liam rolled onto his stomach to see Kennedy confidently striding forward, Makarov in hand, squeezing rounds out with expert precision. As he reached Liam, he crouched, swiping up the machete without losing sight of the Star Scavenger. The creature turned to flee, but he sprinted into it, burying the blade into its skull. Green fluid sprayed from the wound as the winged beast twitched and collapsed, and Kennedy jerked the machete out of its head, sighing. 

“Are you okay?” he asked, turning to Liam. 

Liam nodded, then looked at Kozlov. “The Commander.” 

Kennedy offered Liam the blood-covered machete, and the boy took it gingerly by the handle. Pocketing the Makarov, the Captain rushed to Kozlov, helping her to her feet. Together, the pair returned to the center of the room with Liam and Fen, staring at the butchered corpse in the center. 

“We can’t fight them all,” Kozlov said. “Not with half a magazine of bullets and an old machete.” 

“Maybe we don’t have to,” Fen replied. The others turned to her, and she pointed at the screens behind her. “The others are still trying to get to Mr. Casper in the cryo bay. If we can get to the bay before they breach it, we could eject the module from the rest of the station. Jettison the problem area into space. Wouldn’t they follow it, and leave us alone?” 

Liam and Kozlov looked at Kennedy, who nodded. “That could work, yes. But we’d have to hurry. I suspect it won’t take them long to get into the bay.” 

The squad rushed into a neighboring room, donning new space suits in the event of more hull breaches. Liam gave the machete to Kozlov, but upon a cursory search, he could not find the Cosmonaut pistol that she’d dropped during her face-off. Pressed for time, he shrugged, following the others out of the command room and into the hallways of the International Space Station. 

They navigated the tight corridors, heads on a swivel, but no more Star Scavengers appeared to ambush them. Within minutes, they reached the airlock to the cryo bay, and Kennedy opened the door, gesturing them inside. Kozlov and Liam went forward, hurrying to the chamber in which Liam’s father resided. While Kozlov fiddled with the controls, lowering the temperature even further, Liam placed his hand on the glass chamber, a tear running down his cheek. 

“Good-bye, dad. You finally get to be a part of space . . . the final frontier.” 

He began to step back, but a gunshot rang out, and Kozlov clutched her chest, dropping to her knees. She tried to speak, but coughed instead, a small spray of blood splattering against the glass of the cryogenic chamber. Liam turned to see Kennedy holding the Makarov, barrel still smoking. 

“Oh, wow,” Kennedy commented. “Got a lung, huh?” 

Kozlov stumbled back, slamming against the far wall and sliding down it, the machete falling from her grip and into her lap. “Mudak.” 

“Yeah, yeah,” Kennedy replied apathetically. “Look, I can’t have this shit reported back to Earth, okay? Space Force will literally kill me for such an abysmal job.” 

Job? Liam thought. Wait. Mortimer. 

“The mono didn’t spread to the other mice,” Liam said. “You were poisoning them.” 

“Look at you,” mocked Kennedy. “So young and still so smart. Yes, my job was to lure one – one – Star Scavenger to the station. There, we could capture and study it, and I assume apply the findings toward some kind of joint military project. The slow, suffering death of a small animal was the best way to attract them, but not so much that a whole swarm showed.” 

“Then Mr. Casper had his heart attack,” coughed Kozlov, holding her hand over the wound in her chest. “You’d already called out to the Star Scavengers, but now that you had their attention, they wanted the bigger prize.” 

“Yeah,” Kennedy sighed. “You’re right. I figured, fuck it – let’s let the whole damn family pop in for a bite to eat. The scanners would pick up useful data as they tore through the station, and I’d escape back to earth in a pod with the station’s hard drives to hand over to Space Force.” 

He turned the Makarov to Liam. “But that’s fucked up too, now. I’m surrounded by incompetents.” 

“You don’t have to do this,” Liam said. “We can work this out. We can escape together.” 

“Sorry.” Kennedy shook his head. “You know, I’ve never killed a kid before. Well, except for Afghanistan, but those don’t really count.” 

Liam cringed, waiting for the bullet to enter his brain. 

“Kennedy!” Fen called out from behind. 

Captain Kennedy turned to the side, and Liam saw Fen holding the missing Cosmonaut pistol. 

“I knew it, you son of a bitch,” she snarled. “I wondered what happened to the drives.” 

“What are you going to do?” Kennedy laughed at her. “Kozlov already fired her flares trying to fight the Star Scavenger.” 

“No,” Kozlov weakly replied. “I only fired one.” 

Fen pulled the trigger, and the second barrel ignited, launching the survival flare into Kennedy’s chest. He flew backwards into the cryo bay, and the flare ricocheted away, landing near a series of metal tanks labeled “DMSO.” As Kennedy tumbled to the floor, Kozlov lurched forward, grabbing his wrist swinging her machete. Kennedy cried out in pain as she severed his hand, scooping up the Makarov and leveling it in his direction. 

“Hurry!” Fen cried, tossing the Cosmonaut pistol aside. “That dimethyl sulfoxide is combustible, especially in these pressurized tanks.” 

Liam leapt to his feet, helping Kozlov to hers, and they backed out of the cryo bay, sealing the airlock door closed. Through the porthole window, they saw Kennedy crawl to the door, pounding on it as blood gushed from his wrist stump. 

“You bitch!” he yelled. “You will never be safe on Earth.” 

“And you’ll never see Earth,” Kozlov retorted.  

“This is for Bao,” Fen added, pressing the EJECT button.  

The station hissed as it propelled the cryo bay away, leaving the trio with a clear view of space . . . and the swarm of Star Scavengers silently soaring through it. Sensing the dying flare paired with the lowering temperature of the cryogenic chamber, they swooped down, tearing into the unit. As the bay became a speck, it exploded, sending out a mixture of cryogenic fluids into the vacuum that covered the Star Scavengers. They shuddered as they froze solid, drifting lifelessly into the distance with the wreckage of the cryo bay. 

As the threat faded from sight, Liam turned to Kozlov, who’d grown pale. “Are you okay?” 

“Yes. I’m . . . fine.” The Commander smiled, blood in her teeth. “If you could patch me up here on the station, we’ll go ahead and return to Earth.” 

“What about what Kennedy said?” Fen asked. “Are we going to be in danger when we get back?” 

“Maybe from Space Force,” Kozlov admitted. “But I have friends in Russia that can help us. I’ll take you there.” 

Liam and Fen nodded, the former bending down to pick up the Cosmonaut pistol. 

“Then we’ll go to the med bay,” Liam added, gesturing down the hall. “Our journey isn’t over yet.” 


Nomad 

A solitary bluejay happily chirped as it flitted back and forth between the treetops, its wings gracefully carrying it along the air currents. The overcast sky filtered faded sunlight through the leaves, producing patches of white across which the bird bounced, like a primal game of hopscotch. Something shifted in the distant foliage, and the bluejay turned in alarm, its beady black eyes flickering bright red for a split-second. 

Suddenly, a small, round object whistled from the bushes, striking the winged creature’s skull. Its head exploded, showering the tree trunk behind it with bits of glass, metal, and oil. Wires protruding from its neck stump sparked a little, and the decapitated body tilted to the side, entering free-fall before colliding with the forest floor below. 

As the dust settled, the Nomad rose from the ground, returning her slingshot to a pouch on her hip. She stepped forward, her patchwork layers of tattered clothes brushing up against the branches as she examined the bird that was not a bird.  

Another robot, she thought to herself. Are all the birds here fake? 

A distance trickle reached her ears, and she turned her head in the direction of the sound, heading cautiously that way. As she approached, she saw thick, thorny bushes on the ground, and paused, drawing a pair of long garden shears. 

“Not here,” she murmured. “Thorns are bad around here.” 

Scoping out the foliage, she worked her way in a circle through the trees, orienting herself towards the trickling sound until she eventually encountered a small creek. She sheathed her shears, retrieving an old bottle she’d taken from an abandoned campsite a few weeks ago, along with some of the clothes she now wore. Holding the bottle down to the creek, she filled it with water, licking her dry lips. Once liquid began to pour from the top, she jerked the bottle to her mouth, gulping it down. After it had been drained, she began to fill it again, looking at her reflection in the water. 

A dirty, smudged face stared back at her, the head obscured by a thick hood and a cloth strip that usually covered her mouth and nose. The rest of her attire consisted of an old brown coat, oversized flannel shirt, and torn khaki pants. The laces of her stolen boots were tied extra tight to avoid them slipping off. Still, here in this world, she needed all the protection she could get. 

The pitter-patter of large paws drew her attention from her reflection, and she glanced up to see a large rat, about the size of a car engine, scurry up to the creek. Rather than alarm, she felt calm, and she smiled at the animal, waving. It squeaked in acknowledgement, dipping its face down to the creek to lap up the water. The Nomad sighed, screwing the cap back onto her refilled water bottle. 

The rat shifted its stance a little, its foot touching a slimy, purple, dinner-plate-sized flower growing up from the creek bed. Immediately, the flower’s long, thick petals stretched out in the rat’s direction, ensnaring it. The petals grew and thickened, becoming more like octopus tentacles, and the stem rippled as it began to drain the creek dry to support the accelerated growth. Squealing in terror, the rat pawed at the flower tentacles, but its claws could not penetrate the vegetation. 

“Hey!” The Nomad yelled, producing her shears once more. “Leave it alone!” 

She lunged across the creek, enclosing the two sides of the shear blades around the tentacle that squeezed the rat’s waist. Pinching the shears together with all her weight, she snipped the tentacle completely off, and it relaxed its grip, unspooling around its prey. The other tentacles released the rat, cringing backwards as if responding to pain. The Nomad saw the rat hurry back into the woods, and she smiled. 

Her victory was short-lived, though, as one of the other tentacles ensnared her ankle, lifting her upside-down into the air. She reached up, trying to free herself like she’d freed the rat, but another tentacle appeared, cracking like a whip to knock the shears from her hand. She swore, watching the main flower’s stamen peel back to reveal rows of tooth-like thorns in a tunnel that led down into the flower’s roots. 

Not today, forest, she thought, retrieving her slingshot. Notching a large, smooth pebble with her other hand, she pulled back on the makeshift device, releasing the stone. The projectile whizzed through the air, colliding with the side of the flower’s mouth like a bullet. It squealed, the tone shrill and piercing, and the tentacles released the Nomad, dropping her unceremoniously to the ground. Something small slipped between her fingers, and she reflexively grabbed it. 

Scrambling to her feet, the Nomad dove through the mass of squirming tentacles, sprinting past the trees and beyond their reach. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the flower grow still, the tentacles retreating back into petals once more, the thorn-filled stamen sealing closed. She slowed her stride, sighing, and leaned against a nearby tree, gasping for air. Glancing in her hand, she examined the small object she’d found: A plastic Army toy, depicting a bazooka-wielding soldier. 

“Hello?” a young girl’s voice suddenly called out nearby. “Is someone there? Please help me!” 

The Nomad pressed her head against the tree bark, squeezing her eyes shut. 

No, she thought. Not again. Don’t fall for the spider’s tricks. 

Lifting her head, she peered exasperatedly at the tree cover, through which a grey sky periodically sparked green.  

Still, she silently continued, the forest is better than those things on the streets. 

Humming loudly to drown out the creature’s call, she moved forward once more, sipping from her water bottle. 

________________ 

A few hours later, as the Nomad had paused to tighten her shoelaces, she heard new voices echoing through the brush. Frowning, she stood up, retrieving her slingshot and drawing a pebble back against the elastic. She crouched, inching ahead to identify the source of the chatter. It only took a moment before she reached the edge of the tree line, looking across a wide clearing. 

Before her stood a small graveyard, the names on the evenly-spaced headstones written in a language the Nomad couldn’t read. The grass was bright green here, though it seemed a bit overgrown; not unexpected for an old graveyard in the middle of the woods. The overcast sky cast a gloom across the graves, and the Nomad expected zombies to pop up at any moment. 

Rather than the undead, though, she saw something even worse: The living. 

Four men and one woman, all pale-face, red-lipped, and seemingly in their early twenties, circled one of the graves, shovels in hand. A massive pile of dirt next to the grave indicated to the Nomad that they’d dug it up, and her suspicions were confirmed when she saw a sixth person – another woman – pop up from the hole, waving around what appeared to be gold jewelry. Two of the men helped her out of the hole, and she showed them a satchel strapped to her body. 

“We pawn this, we’ll be set for a long time,” she chuckled, her voice low and raspy. “No one ever comes this far into the forest anymore anyway.” 

The Nomad shifted her stance, and a twig snapped beneath her heel. The six graverobbers spun to face her, and she quickly pocketed her slingshot, stepping out into the clearing with her hands up.  

“Who are you?” one of the men hissed. “You with the Sleep Police?” 

“I don’t know what that is,” the Nomad admitted. Reaching up, she pulled back her hood and face covering, revealing a tan, feminine face with short, choppy hair. “I’m kind of new here.” 

The graverobbers balked, and one of them whispered, “She’s from The Overhead!” 

The Nomad took another gentle step forward. “My name is Alyssa Little. I came into your world by following some kind of flying jellyfish through the filter of a swimming pool. Do you know how I can get back to . . . what did you call it? The Overhead?” 

The woman with the satchel stepped forward, eyeing Alyssa. She turned back to the others, addressing them. “How much do you think the Sleep Police would take for her?” 

One of the men chuckled in response. “Sleep Police? Why let them have all the fun?” 

She elbowed him in the ribs. “Stop thinking with your dick. We’re here to make a profit.” 

Alyssa sighed, creeping backwards. 

This is why I hate people, she thought to herself. 

“Hey!” the other woman yelled, pointing at Alyssa. “Where do you think you’re going?” 

Alyssa turned to flee, and the graverobbers took chase. 

The trees blurred past her as she sprinted through the forest, her boots crushing the grass and leaves beneath them. Behind her, she heard the pale-faced antagonists cackle and scream, taunting her as they threatened to catch her. In a moment of inspiration, she adjusted course, following the thorns along the ground until the sound of running water reached her ears once more. When the creek appeared in front of her, she leapt across it, dropping a pebble back on top of the tentacle-flower she’d previously encountered. 

Immediately, the plant sprung to life, and she looked over her shoulder to see its tentacles ensnare two of the pursuing men, lifting them into the air before pulling them towards its open mouth. Three of the others stopped to try to help them, pulling helplessly at the tentacles. Smiling, she turned her attention back to the woods . . . 

And the woman with the satchel appeared around a tree trunk, swinging a shovel that sent Alyssa spiraling into darkness. 

________________ 

Alyssa awoke with a start, her forehead slamming into some kind of wooden surface. She cringed, reaching up to touch her head, but more wood on either side of her body restricted her movements. Opening her eyes, she saw nothing but blackness, and as realization struck her, she began to take deep, panicked breaths. 

“You awake down there?” she heard the graverobber with the satchel call, her voice distant and muffled. “You should be by now.” 

Alyssa resisted the urge to scream for help. She knew it would make no difference here. 

“That Squid Flower killed two of my friends,” the woman continued. “You killed two of my friends.” 

“Bitch,” Alyssa heard one of the surviving men mutter. She placed her palms on the wooden surface above her, slowing her breathing. 

“We’re just about to finish burying you,” added the woman with the satchel. “We’ll be back for you in, I don’t know, a week? And then we’ll take your body to the Sleep Police. I’m sure they’ll still pay a little bit for the corpse of a girl from The Overhead.” 

Dying in a grave in a cemetery, Alyssa thought to herself. How fitting. 

She reached down into her pockets to see what supplies she could use to survive or escape, but quickly realized that they’d removed all of her belongings. Gritting her teeth, she stifled her tears, not giving them the satisfaction of hearing her fear. 

Besides, she knew what was about to come. 

“What the hell?” the other woman suddenly cried from above. 

Alyssa heard a series of overlapping scratching sounds somewhere beyond her coffin. Within moments, something sharp scraped against the wood, and rapid sniffing reached her ears. The wood began to flake and splinter, falling onto her face, and she covered her eyes and mouth, patiently waiting. After another moment, she felt something break through the coffin, and cold wetness touched her hands. 

Shifting up into a sitting stance, Alyssa forced herself up through the new hole in the coffin, clawing into the recently shifted dirt. She held her breath, pulling along the earth, until grey light reached her eyes. Breaching the grave in which she’d been buried, she gasped, sucking in fresh air. Her eyes adjusted, and she glanced at the graverobbers. 

The two men and two women glared at her, their eyes darting down at the ground periodically. Surrounding them stood half a dozen large rats, much like the one Alyssa had encountered at the creek. The rodents hissed at the graverobbers, baring sharp teeth, and the humans waved their shovels in response. 

“I’m going to kill you,” one of the men said, running at Alyssa. The rats immediately pounced on him, biting into his flesh, and he screamed, rolling around to shake them off. 

“The animals here don’t seem to like it when I’m in trouble,” Alyssa explained to the horrified survivors. “Are you going to be trouble?” 

Two of the remaining graverobbers rushed to help the one covered in rats, but the woman with the satchel waved them away. “Leave him. While they’re distracted, we’ll kill the girl.” 

Alyssa shook her head. “I wouldn’t do that. They’ve had time to get to me.” 

“Who’s had time–” began the other woman, but she screamed in pain, collapsing to the ground as something dragged her by the legs beyond the tree line, out of sight. In the distance, Alyssa heard bones crunch, and the woman’s screams faded into whimpers. 

“That’s it,” the last man said, dropping his shovel. “I’m out of here.” 

He turned to run, but a pair of large, feather-winged snakes swooped down from the trees, biting at his face. Crying out, he fell to the ground, and the snakes began to work their way up towards his eyes. Alyssa glanced at the last woman standing, offering a sad sigh. 

“I call those egg-eaters,” she explained. “But it appears they’ll go after anything that looks like eggs.” 

The man’s cries turned shrill as the snakes began to burrow into his eye sockets. 

“What . . . what are you?” the woman with the satchel whispered, her bottom lip quivering. 

“I’m just a girl, trying to survive,” Alyssa responded. “A nomad, without a home.” 

A low hiss emanated from behind Alyssa, and she turned to see a black, faceless alligator waddle up to her side. Leaning down, she gently pet the thing’s rubbery skin, whispering to it. 

“Good girl. You want a snack?” 

The alligator slithered forward, and the leader of the graverobbers dropped her satchel, stumbling away in an attempt to escape. She made it ten steps before the creature caught up with her, chomping its carrot-sized teeth around her leg and jerking her to the ground. 

Alyssa bent down, retrieving the satchel of jewelry, before collecting her tools and supplies and latching them back onto her person. Unscrewing her water bottle, she took a sip of the lukewarm drink, humming a tune to drown out the screams as she left the graveyard, a Nomad once more. 


Over the Thames 

Charlie sat on the old, worn seat of the public bus, staring passively out the window. A steady drizzle of rain fell from a gray, apathetic sky, pattering on the pane of glass. 

Just another depressing morning in London, she thought. 

She stretched and looked ahead, past the mixture of adult and child passengers lucky enough to share her route to her school today. The early-morning traffic stretched ahead endlessly, like a slowly unraveling ball of yarn. The cars suddenly moved forward, but only by a meter or so. 

Her bus rolled forward, too, and Charlie noticed that they’d reached the center of the London Bridge. If she closed her eyes, she could picture the cold, uninviting waters of the Thames River ten meters below. 

Her eyelids parted, and she reached into her pocket, retrieving her cell phone. She knew that her friend and classmate, Ross, was in another bus further along the road, maybe still on the bridge. He might know what’s going on with the traffic today. 

She selected Ross’s number from her contacts and pressed CALL. The phone rang twice before someone answered. Instead of a voice, however, a strange, garbled noise filled the receiver. 

“Ross?” Charlie asked. 

She frowned, listening intently. It almost sounded like . . . no, it did sound like water. Water hurriedly filling lungs, surrounded by splashing and a panicked, gurgling scream. Realization struck Charlie: Someone was drowning. 

“Ross, are you okay?” Charlie yelled, and the other bus passengers turned to look at her. 

Over the phone, glass broke, but the sound was distorted, as if the pane were completely below water. Suddenly, the screaming and struggling stopped, and she heard nothing but muffled silence. 

“Charlie . . .” 

A new voice, distant and ethereal, as if a faint breeze composed the words. 

“Join us . . . join us . . .” 

The phone fell silent as the call disconnected. 

A middle-aged man wearing a suit and sporting a ponytail leaned over from across the aisle. “Is everything okay, miss?” 

Her cell phone slipped from her nerveless fingers and dropped into her lap. “I think my friend is in trouble.” 

“What happened–” he began to ask, but a low rumble along the bridge interrupted him. 

Charlie looked around. “What was that?” 

“I don’t know,” the man answered, frowning. “I’ll check the news.” 

He retrieved his smartphone and unlocked it, typing on the screen. His frown deepened, and he turned his back to Charlie, holding his phone up to the window. “How can I have no service in the middle of bloody London?” 

Movement behind Charlie caught her eye, and she glanced out the window on her side of the bus. Along the idling cars, apparently unseen by everyone but Charlie, shuffled a thin man in a suit and tie. He kept his head down, and long, black hair tumbled into his face, obscuring Charlie’s view of it. Both the hair and the clothing were disheveled and dark, as if the man had just gone swimming. The sunlight glinted off a smooth, silver wedding band on his finger.  

Suddenly, the figure paused, his head turning slightly toward Charlie’s window. 

Charlie gasped and pulled away from the glass, feeling the blood drain from her face. “Did you see that?” 

The ponytailed man turned away from his phone, looking over his shoulder at her. “See what?” 

Charlie’s voice trembled. “There’s someone out on the bridge. He’s looking at us.” 

Leaning against his seat, the ponytailed man peered through Charlie’s windows. “Where?” 

“Right th–” Charlie turned to point, but the figure on the bridge was gone. “Oh.” 

Without saying another word, the ponytailed man turned back toward his own window, muttering profanities at his phone as he tried to connect to the internet. 

The bridge rumbled again, louder this time, and concerned murmurs swept along the bus. 

Sighing, Charlie looked at her lap, where her phone had dropped. She reached down and lifted it in her palm, preparing to call Ross again. As her gaze lifted upwards once more, though, she saw that the figure from the bridge had reappeared, and was now peering into her window. Through wet strands of hair, Charlie saw nothing but a white skull. 

Charlie screamed, scrambling out of her seat and collapsing in the aisle, her phone clattering across the floor. The surrounding passengers, however, seemed unperturbed by her outburst.  

And the skeleton man was gone once more. 

Hands shaking, Charlie reached for her phone, noting that it now sported a cracked screen. Redialing Ross’s number, Charlie held her breath as she placed the phone to her ear. It rang once, then answered to the eerie, distorted, underwater silence. Every few seconds, she heard a displacement, as if a bubble of air were passing by on the other end. 

“Join us, Charlie . . . Join us . . .” the ethereal voice whispered in her ear again. “Join us  . . . Below the water!” 

Charlie felt moisture against her cheek, and pulled the phone away from her face. Water leaked from the crack in the screen, spraying forcefully onto Charlie’s clothes. She gasped, dropping the device for the third time. This time, the glass shattered completely, and a fountain of water rose from within the phone, covering the floor, seats and windows. 

“Help!” Charlie yelled, looking around. 

The bus was empty. 

Where the passengers once sat, their clothes laid crumpled and wet against the seats. 

Behind her, Charlie heard the ponytailed man mumble, and she slowly turned to face him. He was hunched over, his back still to her, his clothes wet and disheveled, his hair now undone.  

“S– sir?” Charlie stuttered, putting a hand on his shoulder. Her eyes drifted to his hand, where a smooth, silver wedding band rested. 

The man swiveled to face her, a white skull peering through his wet, black hair. 

“Join us, Charlie . . .” the skeleton said, its jaw barely moving. “Join . . .” 

Water erupted from its mouth, reducing the rest of its words to meaningless gurgles. 

The bridge rumbled a third time, and Charlie staggered to her feet, spinning in a circle. She realized the water was filling the bus fast, already sloshing up to her shins. Taking a step toward the exit, then another, she tried to understand her surroundings, to formulate her escape plan. 

A thin, bony hand grabbed her leg before she could take a third step, though. 

Charlie jumped, glancing over her shoulder to see the skeleton attached to her, the pile of bones rising to its feet and ambulating in her direction. She screamed, kicking at it, and pulled away from its grip, wading through the waters toward the bus’s exit.  

“We miss you, Charlie,” the skeleton wheezed, stumbling after her. “Come join us.” 

Charlie reached the front of the bus, pulling at the door release. It wouldn’t budge. 

“Don’t fight us, Charlie.” 

The water rose up to her waist now, and she rushed to the door, pounding on it. “Help!” 

Through the fogging glass, she saw a mass of empty cars, water leaking from their windows. 

Something bumped against Charlie’s waist, and she squeaked, jumping. Turning around, she realized the ponytailed man’s phone had found its way over to her, managing to stay afloat. Charlie snatched up the device and quickly dialed 999, pressing it to her ear. 

“999 operator, what is the nature of your emergency?” a young woman’s voice answered. 

“Help!” Charlie cried into the phone. The water was past her shoulders, and she had to hold her breath to float to the top of the bus. 

“Where are you?” the operator demanded. “State your position.” 

Beneath the water, Charlie saw the skeleton floating closer. Behind him swam three new shapes, each one long, black and serpentine. “I’m–” 

The skeleton grabbed her ankle, dragging her below the water’s surface. She lashed out again, the heel of her shoe colliding with the creature’s forehead. Its skull ripped away from its shoulders, floating upwards, while the rest of the bones collapsed, drifting away. Behind the skeleton, the three black shapes swam closer, though Charlie still couldn’t see them clearly. 

With a mighty upward push, Charlie’s head broke the surface of the water, and she sputtered into the phone. “OVER THE THAMES! I’M OVER THE THAMES!” 

The operator remained silent for a moment before responding, her voice distant and ethereal. “Are you sure about that, Charlie?” 

Growling in frustration, Charlie hurled the phone, which plopped into the water halfway across the bus. A flash of red caught her eye, and she glanced up at the emergency escape hatch embedded in the roof of the bus. Reaching up, she grasped the lever, pulling it, and shifted her grip, using her momentum to throw the hatch open. 

The three black shapes below the water circled her feet now. 

Gripping the edges of the bus roof, Charlie hoisted herself upwards, careful not to let her hands slip on the wet metal. As she lifted out of the water and on top of the vehicle, she heard one of the shapes chase her, snapping in the air like a bear trap closing around its prey. Pressurized air tickled her leg, but she remained unharmed, slamming the hatch closed. 

Crawling to her feet, Charlie balanced atop the bus roof, looking across the London Bridge. She saw a sea of cars, but more than that, she saw a literal sea, water pouring from the doors and windows of a hundred empty vehicles. The rain fell harder now, adding to the sea, and even through the bus, Charlie felt the bridge reach a continuous rumble. 

She hurried to the front of the bus, sliding down the slanted windshield and landing on the hood. As she wiggled off the vehicle, her feet colliding with asphalt, gravity shifted, and she landed face-first in knee-high water. Fluid filled her nostrils, and she rose on her hands and knees, coughing and sputtering. 

Gravity shifted again, and she felt herself being pulled through the water, an invisible force drawing her closer to the edge of the bridge. She cried out, digging her fingers into the road, but she could find no leverage, no traction; her body flowed backwards against her will. Within seconds, she found herself pressed against the metal railing which solely separated her from a ten-meter drop into the Thames River. 

On the bridge, the vehicles began to succumb to the gravity shift, skidding sideways across the road in Charlie’s direction. She struggled back to her feet, panic causing her heart to palpitate as she saw the dozen or so cars and buses slowly sliding along a water-lined path to crush her. Looking behind her, she saw nothing between her and the river but empty air. 

She had to do it. She had to jump. 

Legs shaking, Charlie vaulted over the railing, plummeting downward. The moment she went airborne, a green light flashed around her, and the world went silent for a split-second. When her vision cleared, the London Bridge had been reduced to rubble, chunks of metal and glass and concrete screaming down into the river.  

Charlie felt her stomach flip as she soared straight down, trying her best to avoid being struck by the pieces of the bridge or the vehicles which were once perched upon it. The heaviest bits of rubble had already reached the river’s surface, generating tremendous columns of water as they splashed into the abyss. As the wind ripped past her body, watering her eyes and pulling back her hair, she spied three black, serpentine shapes in the Thames, circling the spot she was soon to land. 

Taking a long, deep breath, Charlie closed her eyes as she struck the water. 

Her body collided with the river with a loud, forceful slap, jolting her so suddenly that she might as well have landed on concrete. Water shoved itself up her nostrils, gagging her, and she coughed, releasing a bubble of air. Dull thuds exploded around her as more of the London Bridge joined her, and she opened her eyes to avoid running into the rubble. 

Three black, faceless alligators, hardly an arm’s length away, stared back. 

Charlie screamed, expelling more valuable air, and tried to swim away, but the closest alligator darted forward, gently biting down on her leg. She felt pressure, but no pain, as if its carrot-length teeth were made of hard rubber rather than sharp bone. The three alligators turned around, Charlie helplessly in tow, and dragged her further into the Thames, dodging the sinking debris. The filtered sunlight of the depressing London morning gave way to something darker, and Charlie struggled to hold in her breath as the water rushed past her skin. 

Within seconds, they’d located the public bus Charlie had just escaped, and the alligator holding her leg pulled her back to the escape hatch, releasing her. She instantly tried to swim back to the surface, but it quickly grabbed her again, jerking her back to the escape hatch. This time, the other two alligators pushed their noses against her, stuffing her through the hole and into the bus. The moment she cleared the hatch, it snapped closed behind her, sealing her in the water-filled vehicle as it continued to sink into inky blackness. 

Suddenly, the windows around her flickered, like television screens. Pieces of the London Bridge floating by vanished, replaced with moments that Charlie recognized. 

She saw herself as a small baby, giggling and splashing around in a bathtub. Her innocent grin infected her parents, who hovered over her. 

Then she was six years old, taking swimming lessons at the public pool. Her nostrils flared as she took a breath, surfacing the chlorinated water. 

Then she was nine years old, stepping across the stones of a creek with Ross. Her foot slipped on a mossy rock, and she fell back, soaking her pants and the bottom half of her t-shirt. Both children laughed exaggeratedly, as only little kids do. 

Then she was thirteen, kissing her first girlfriend in the rain. Their soaked hair hung down in front of each other’s faces. 

See, the ethereal voice returned, echoing around her, the water remembers you. It remembers you, it misses you, and now it wants you back. So, join us . . . join us below the water . . . 

The screens flickered one more, this time revealing the bottom of the Thames River. Metal and glass and concrete struck the riverbed around her, but she no longer cared. She knew where she was, when she was: the exact time and place of the end of her life. Something had gone wrong, though, making her late to her own death. 

No matter. She’d arrived regardless. So, she drifted back into her chair, leaning her head on the window, allowing herself to be lulled to sleep by the peaceful calm under the Thames. 

Phase IV — Khufu’s Tale

Khufu’s Tale, Pt. 1 – The Search for Terror 

Arctic winds bit at Isaac’s skin as he stared into the endless flurry of snow, icy water sloshing far beneath him. He looked out over the bow of the Breadalbane, a large, sturdy merchant ship that had been repurposed for something far greater than the sum of its parts. Ahead, glaciers manifested from the gloom, as if summoned into existence by some dark wizard. As the mountains of ice passed the ship, he shivered.  

“What’s wrong, boy? Cold feet already?” 

Isaac turned to face the source of the questions, shaking his head. “Not at all, Captain Taylor. Just working on a bit of a thicker skin.” 

The ship captain grunted disapprovingly. “This is why I said we shouldn’t have children in the rescue party. They slow us down too much. And call me Jacob, damn it. We aren’t in the Navy.” 

“Sorry, sir,” Isaac responded, immediately cringing at his own wording. “I know I still have some growing to do, but when Lady Franklin calls for help, we answer. Right?” 

“Hm,” Jacob grunted again, his tone a little softer this time. “Good enough.” 

He turned away, shambling across the deck towards the sails, leaving Isaac alone once more. 

I can’t disappoint Lady Franklin, he thought, returning his attention to the ice and snow. 

Eight years ago, the gentleman whom Isaac and his family served, Sir John Franklin, embarked on an expedition by sea to finish mapping the Northwest Passage for the benefit of future sailors. Family back in Britain expected to receive periodic communication from John, but after two years, they heard nothing but silence. His wife, Lady Jane Franklin, became concerned, and sent a search and rescue party the following year which yielded no results. 

Not the least bit deterred, she worked with others to establish a heartier party, sending some of her trusted servants – Isaac included – to aid in any way they could. While the ships sent out had the goal of rescuing the entire crew aboard both ships – the HMS Erebon and the HMS Terror – Isaac’s only mission was the latter vessel, upon which Lady Franklin expected him to find her husband.  

And Isaac had every intention of doing so. 

A low rumble shook Isaac from his thoughts, and the Breadalbane began to shudder, destabilizing his balance. He fell forward, catching himself on the railing at the edge of the bow. Below, he saw that the ice had grown and thickened, now penetrating the ship’s hull.  

“It’s too much!” he cried back at the rest of the crew. “We have to stop or we’ll sink!” 

They began to close the sails, but the ship’s momentum continued unabated, plowing into thicker and thicker ice. The Breadalbane began to tilt to the right, and Isaac’s grip on the railing tightened as he felt gravity pull him towards the freezing water. Three crew members weren’t so fortunate, though, and they screamed as they fell, their bodies slamming into the hard ice far below and splattering it red. 

“Abandon ship!” yelled Jacob, releasing his grip near the sails and sliding gracefully across the steepening deck. As he launched over the edge, he executed a dive, plunging into the water between two chunks of ice. 

Isaac and the other crew members followed suit, leaping overboard into the frigid sea. As Isaac struck the water, his breath caught in his chest, frozen in place by the shocking cold. His body instantly grew numb, and he hurried back to the water’s surface, climbing onto the nearest floating piece of ice. He hardly felt the frozen water beneath him as he hugged his chest for warmth.  

Overhead, the ship continued its roll, fully capsizing with a massive splash that soaked the already-wet former crew. They screamed in protest, and in the corner of his eye, Isaac saw the wave shove the blood and bodies of his fellow crewmates into the deep, forever lost to the fishes. His heart sank, and he held back his tears. 

How will we return home? he wondered as the Breadalbane sank, fear numbing him more than the cold ever could. 

“To shore!” Jacob called, pointing to what appeared to be a nearby land mass. “That’s Beechey Island. We should be able to find shelter there. Gather all the supplies you can and come with me!” 

Isaac and the remaining crew scrambled for nearby tools and provisions, climbing over any thick ice they could find as the water between platforms began to re-solidify. After thirty grueling minutes, they staggered onto the shore of Beechey Island, collapsing into the snow. Only Jacob stood tall, hands on his hips, looking around. The snowstorm died down, revealing a wide, flat plane of white as far as Isaac could see. 

“Where will we go?” he asked the former ship captain. 

“Forward,” Jacob replied. “Always forward.” 

With that, he took a step towards the arctic tundra, not bothering to look back and see if the others were following. Isaac trotted close behind, and the others grumbled, staggering to their feet to keep up. It was in this manner that eighteen men left behind their beloved Breadalbane, plowing straight into the frigid wasteland. 

________________ 

Hours passed as they trekked through the snow, remaining mostly silent the entire time. The seawater froze in thin layers across their skin, flaking off as they walked. Sensation had left Isaac a while ago, and he worried about the potential for frostbite. Despite the clearer weather, he saw nothing but endless emptiness, the earth as pale as an army of ghosts. 

He feared that, if nothing changed soon, he might be the next to join that army. 

“Hey,” one of the crewmen called out, pointing. “What’s that ahead?” 

Isaac squinted, trying to focus on three small, dark shapes close to the ground, but he couldn’t make out the details. 

“Only one way to find out, right?” Jacob responded, drawing a knife from his belt. Isaac followed suit with his hatchet, unable to use any firearms, since the sea had soaked their gunpowder supply.  

They moved toward the objects, and as they drew close, Isaac registered three wooden planks jutting up from the snow. Each one had a little writing on them, and as the crew slowed to a stop, Isaac read them aloud. 

“John Torrington. John Hartnell. William Braine.” 

One of the crew members near him sighed. “Those three were part of Franklin’s expedition. I guess they didn’t make it.” 

Jacob stepped closer to the makeshift gravestones, whistling. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” 

The crew gathered around Jacob, peering down. Sure enough, there were three body-sized holes in front of the three gravestones. 

Three empty holes. 

A crew member scratched his head. “What do you think happened? Did the others get hungry and eat them?” 

Jacob shot him a stern look. “Don’t say something like that, sailor. Franklin’s men aren’t cannibals.” 

The man shrunk back sheepishly, and Jacob crouched near the graves, holding up an empty glass vial lying atop the snow. “What do you think this was for? Medicine, maybe?” 

Suddenly, a strong wind swept through the group, carrying a renewed flurry of snowflakes with it. Isaac felt the air irritate his chapped skin, and as he squinted in discomfort, he saw a figure approaching through the storm. 

“Hey!” he called, getting Jacob’s attention. “Over there!” 

The group hurried toward the incoming silhouette, but quickly stopped, balking in horror. 

From the flurry emerged a gaunt, pale thing, a humanoid figure wearing white clothes and sporting curly blonde hair. Its face was shriveled and stiff, blackened by frostbite, the eyes cold and lifeless. Still, it shambled towards them, mouth open in some silent scream of eternal terror, the snowstorm whipping its hair around haphazardly.  

“What in God’s name is that?” a crew member near Isaac gasped. 

Isaac turned to look at the man who’d spoken, and his eyes widened, his lips parting in terror. “Sir, behind you!” 

Another Frozen Man had appeared behind the crew member, this one’s hair short and black. It reached around the man, shoving its fingers in his mouth, and jerked downwards, ripping his lower jaw from his face. The crew member screeched, blood pouring from the wound, his tongue flopping helplessly down from the missing lower half of his face. His eyes watered in pain and panic before rolling into the back of his head, and he passed out into the snow, the white powder quickly turning red around him. 

“Hey!” another crew member yelled, running at the black-haired Frozen Man. Rearing back, he swung a large mallet in his hand, the blunt end of the tool connecting with the assailant’s face. Rather than causing any notable damage, the mallet’s wooden handle splintered, and the rubber head broke away, leaving the Frozen Man unfazed. Looking down at the useless handle in his hand, the crew member frowned. “Oh.” 

The black-haired Frozen Man struck out with one arm, punching into the would-be attacker’s chest. A sickening, wet sound reached Isaac’s ears through the snow-filled winds as the thing’s arm emerged from the other side of the crew member’s body, red and glistening. The Frozen Man removed its arm from his chest, leaving a gaping hole that gushed blood. The crew member gasped, stumbling around for a moment, before dropping to his knees and joining his jawless comrade in the snow. 

A sharp crunch drew Isaac’s attention back to the first, curly-haired Frozen Man, who’d lifted another crewmate into the air, folding him in half like a tablecloth. Nearby, a third Frozen Man appeared, this one bald and bearded. The thing reached up behind the closest crewmate, snapping his neck in one swift turn. Three men surrounded the newcomer, assaulting it with their tools and weapons, but it ignored their blows against its icy, hard skin, tearing them to pieces effortlessly.  

“Isaac!” the boy heard Jacob cry as he struggled against the curly-haired Frozen Man. As the thing grabbed him by the neck, lifting him into the air, he choked out three more words. “Run! Save yourself!” 

Ignoring the man’s pleas, Isaac rushed at him, wielding his hatchet. He brought the blade down onto the arm holding Jacob in the air, but the metal shattered into pieces, sending painful reverberations traveling back up Isaac’s arms. The Frozen Man batted him away, sending him sprawling into the snow; as he struggled back to his feet, it grabbed Jacob’s face with its other hand, ripping the man’s head cleanly from his body. 

Sucking in the freezing air, Isaac hyperventilated as he sprinted across the snow, away from the massacre. He turned his head, squinting his eyes shut as blood splatter turned the snow red, the droplets of pain and fear freezing in the wind and falling down like hailstones. As he fought back tears, he staggered forward, beyond the sounds of the crewmates’ screams. 

________________ 

Isaac wasn’t sure how long he stumbled through the storm before his legs gave out beneath him. He collapsed face-first into the powder, so numb that he barely registered the collision. As the wind shifted direction, a low, hollow moan reached his ears. He slowly raised his head, squinting through the snowflakes at a dark void near him. 

“A portal to hell,” he mumbled to himself deliriously. “That explains everything.” 

The flurry slowed, and he realized it wasn’t a gate to the underworld at all – it was merely the entrance to a cave, embedded in a nearby hillside. Rejuvenated by the promise of shelter, Isaac dragged himself back to a standing position, shuffling towards the natural structure. As he reached the entrance, he leaned forward, peering into the darkness. 

I can’t see a damn thing, he thought to himself. No matter. What’s in here can’t be worse than what’s out there. 

He walked inside, his footsteps echoing off the cave walls, haunting his ears like the ghosts of his fallen crewmates. As he moved forward, the echoes tightened, as if the cave had begun to narrow, and he paused, reaching out with his hands to measure the width and height. His palms touched cold stone, and the storm faded once more, allowing sunlight to filter into the cave. As it illuminated the space around him, Isaac gasped. 

Ahead sat a pitch-black, ornate coffin made of some kind of stone, its door open to reveal an empty interior riddled with silver spikes. The spikes crackled, arcs of green energy flickering back and forth between them. The entire coffin seemed to hum, its pitch low, its tone steady. As Isaac stared, he felt the hair on his head begin to raise. 

As he began to back away from the strange contraption, a figure caught his peripheral vision, and he turned to the cave wall on his left. Screaming, he let go of the cold stone wall.  

A wall that wasn’t made of stone at all. 

Merely centimeters away stood another Frozen Man, a petrified skeleton in tattered clothes who seemed to be embedded into the side of the cave. More Frozen Men surrounded the first, creating a complex collage of horrific, shriveled bodies. Isaac’s eyes traveled up, then to the right, realizing that he was surrounded by dozens of unmoving figures. 

Realization struck him, and he quickly took count. 

One hundred and thirty-one, he thought to himself. Plus the three outside. This is what remains of the Franklin expedition. 

“What year is it?” a voice crackled from behind, startling him. 

Isaac spun around to see a tall man enter the cave, shrugging the snow off his shoulders. He wore stonelike, pitch-black armor, seemingly made of something similar to the coffin on the other side of the cave. The armor was studded with small silver holes, lined up much in the same way as the array of spikes within the coffin. The man’s face, the only exposed part of his body, appeared bleach-white and angular, with thin, red lips and black, beady eyes.  

“What year is it?” the man repeated, his voice raspy, as if he hadn’t had a drink of water in a long, long time. 

“It’s . . .” Isaac gulped. “It’s 1853, sir.” 

“Ah . . .” the man nodded, reaching into a pouch on his armor and retrieving a glass vial full of black, viscous fluid. “About two thousand years, then. No wonder I’m so tired.” 

Without another word, he walked over to the nearest petrified expedition member, administering a single drop of the black fluid into their mouth. Moving to the side, he continued this with each body he encountered, murmuring to himself. 

“My enemies thought, since they couldn’t kill me, they’d just hide me in this hole forever. Well, forever didn’t last quite as long as they expected, did it? You’ve failed, Bastet.” 

“Excuse me,” Isaac interrupted gently. “Who are you, sir? What are you doing to these men?” 

The man chuckled, turning to face the boy. Behind him, the Frozen Men began to animate, crackling like dry tree branches as they stiffly ripped themselves from the cave walls. Isaac’s eyes widened in horror, and the man in the armor finally answered his questions. 

“I am – was – the ruler of The Underneath. The conqueror of death. The Black Pharaoh. I am Khufu, and I am here to remake The Overhead in my own image.” 

Moving with the speed of a striking snake, Khufu lashed out his arm, lifting Isaac into the air by his neck. As the boy opened his mouth, gasping for air like a fish on land, Khufu tilted the glass vial over his face. A drop of the black substance fell from the lip of the vial, landing directly on Isaac’s tongue. 

Instantly, he felt his pulse quicken, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. An inexplicable rage filled his chest, and he felt his muscles twitch beneath his skin, as if covered with crawling ants. Khufu dropped him to the floor, and he felt his bones stretch and crackle, turning him into . . . something else. He put his hands to his face, which had begun to stiffen, the skin hardening, and tears leaked from his eyes as he realized what kind of monster he was about to become. 

He’d found Sir Franklin, after all. He just wouldn’t be bringing him back. 


Khufu’s Tale, Pt. 2 – Betty & Barney 

Benji looked out of the car window at the night sky, the intensity of the moon’s white glow causing his eyes to ache. Trees whipped past him on both sides, partially obscuring the mountains beyond. He felt tired, so tired, after his long day enjoying his sixth birthday at a big, big waterfall. He practiced counting by keeping track of the dark tree trunks, using his eyes to focus on one at a time until each one disappeared, returning the forest to a blur. 

“How much longer, do you think?” asked his mother, Betty, up in the passenger’s seat. 

His father, Barney, sighed. “Not too much longer. We’ll get back in time to get some sleep before the morning.” 

“Maybe we should stop at a motel,” Betty urged. “It’s already almost eleven.” 

“It’s okay,” Barney insisted. “We’ll make it.” 

Returning his attention to the sky above, Benji noticed that a second, smaller moon had now appeared, a small, white point of light to the left of the larger, more familiar circle. The smaller moon flickered past the stars, moving back and forth in swift, erratic patterns.  

His mother had noticed it, too. “Barney! Do you see that?” 

Barney glanced out the window. “Huh. Do you think it’s a falling star?” 

Before Betty could answer, Benji felt pressure between his legs. “Mommy. I have to use the bathroom.” 

Betty and Barney exchanged glances, and the latter responded, “Sorry, Benji. No bathroom around here. Are you okay going on the side of the road?” 

Peeking outside hesitantly, Benji asked, “Is it cold?” 

“Maybe a little,” Betty replied softly. “But you’ll be okay. I promise.” 

“Oh, hey,” Barney added, pointing ahead. “There’s a little picnic area. You can go up there.” 

They pulled over to the side of the road, the car clicking as Barney activated his emergency lights. Together, he and Benji trotted toward a wooden table with two attached benches, straining to avoid obstacles in the darkness. Benji began to do his business, turning to look over his shoulder at the car. Inside, his mother peered up at the sky, squinting through a tiny object that Benji didn’t recognize. 

“Dad, what is she holding?” he asked, pulling his pants back up. 

Barney turned to look at his wife, calling to her when he saw what she was doing. “Honey! Why do you have the binoculars out?” 

She said nothing, opting instead to point up at the stars. Benji followed her finger, gasping in awe as he saw a large, disc-shaped object hovering in the sky, backlit by the moon, its underside flickering multi-colored lights. Looking up at his father, he saw the man scratching his head, a confused expression on his face. 

“Maybe it’s a new kind of commercial plane?” Barney muttered skeptically. 

Suddenly, the disc dipped in their direction, picking up speed as it approached. 

“That’s not a plane!” Barney corrected himself, scooping up Benji and hurrying toward the car. They climbed into the vehicle, and Benji strapped himself in as Barney stomped on the accelerator, sending them lurching forward. Benji felt his head press back against his seat, and they zoomed down the old, abandoned road, the flickering disc chasing after them. 

“What is that thing?” Betty demanded, craning her neck around the window to look at it. “It’s got to be at least forty feet wide. And it’s spinning, Barney. Just like that flying saucer my sister saw.” 

“I don’t know, honey,” Barney admitted, “but we aren’t going to stop and ask for directions with our son in the car!” 

Benji felt tears welling up behind his eyes, his parents’ panic upsetting him more than the craft itself. He’d never seen them so scared before. 

Ahead loomed a series of mountains, and they pressed forward, the disc so low now that the flashing lights surrounded them. Benji heard a crunching sound, and looked up to see the roof of the car beginning to crumple like aluminum foil. He cried now, and he heard his father swear, swerving to a stop. Reaching into his pocket, he retrieved a small pistol, opening the car door. 

“Barney, what are you doing?” Betty cried as he slammed the car door shut. “Barney!” 

As Barney cocked his pistol, the disc lowered from the sky, its massive body filling Benji’s view through the front windshield. Maybe it was because Benji was starting to get hungry, but it reminded him a little of a pancake. Inside the pancake, Benji saw a series of windows, through which about ten shadowy figures seemed to be watching him. 

Leveling his pistol, Barney approached the glowing pancake. “Leave us alone!” 

Stay where you are. 

The voices that whispered seemed to come not from the craft, nor even from beyond the car; to Benji, they bounced around the inside of his skull, as if they’d always been there. Ahead, the thing from the sky lowered to the earth, and a hole opened from the bottom as the whispers repeated themselves. 

Stay where you are. 

Backing away, Barney sprinted to the car, his eyes wide and hysterical. He yanked open the driver’s side door, collapsing in the seat and gripping the steering wheel. He turned to Betty, shivering. 

“They’re going to capture us!” He glanced behind him, his eyes connecting with Benji’s. “I won’t let them.” 

He stomped on the pedal once more, swerving around the massive metal pancake, the car grumbling as it dragged itself through the dirt and grass on the side of the road. They blasted past the newcomer, Barney muttering to himself the entire time. 

“They’re not human. Somehow, they’re not human.” 

He glanced to his right. “Betty, look for the ship. Make sure they’re not following us.” 

Benji’s breath came in short, fearful gasps now as he watched his mother slowly roll down her window, leaning her head outside. 

“Barney!” she cried. “It’s right above–” 

A low buzz vibrated the roof of the car, interrupting Betty as it spread throughout the whole vehicle, tingling Benji’s fingers and toes. Immediately, Benji’s parents relaxed, leaning back in their car seats. Benji’s stomach fluttered as the car began to slow, coasting gently to a stop. Ahead, the pancake reappeared, its underbelly practically a rainbow now. It lowered itself to the ground, and a ramp quickly extended from within the mass of lights, ending at an opening into the pancake.  

“Mom?” Benji whispered, wide-eyed. “Dad?” 

Simultaneously, the two adults unbuckled their seatbelts, opening their doors and stepping back out into the street. Barney turned to reach into the car, his eyes glazed over as his hands stretched towards Benji. Struggling to escape his father’s grasp, Benji fought against his seatbelt, but it was too late. He found himself lifted into the air, tightly hugged as Betty and Barney walked calmly toward the metal pancake.  

“Help!” Benji yelled down the empty street, his young voice floating up into the starry sky.  

His parents stepped up onto the ramp of the thing from the stars, carrying Benji into a bright white light. When his vision cleared, he saw a circular, silver room filled with silver tables, the curved walls covered in long, flat windows that flickered like his television at home. Bustling about the room hurried slender grey people, devoid of clothes or any facial features beyond solid black eyes. As Benji and his parents entered the room, the grey people turned to stare at them. 

Put the boy down, the whispers commanded, returning to Benji’s skull with a fury. 

Barney complied, lowering his son to the floor. 

Come to us, the grey people beckoned. 

Betty and Barney approached, shambling like dry leaves in a gentle breeze.  

Reaching behind them, one of the grey people produced a fiery red orb, holding it up to the two adults’ faces. It began to flicker rapidly, shifting at random between red, green, and blue. Benji’s parents shuddered, and sweat began to drip down their faces.  

The boy will stay, Benji heard in his head. He will travel the cosmos with us, and live a happy life. 

“No!” cried Benji, running to his parents. One of the grey men grabbed him and held him back while he kicked and screamed. 

You will leave, the grey people continued. Forget the boy. Forget.  

Betty and Barney turned on their heels, marching back down the ramp without looking back at their son. Benji sobbed, screaming for them to come back, but they seemed not to hear him, entering their car and driving out of sight. 

“It’s done, then?” a voice asked from behind. 

Benji looked over his shoulder, and through teary eyes, he saw a tall man with a pale face, angular features, and thin, red lips. He wore stonelike armor covered in silver studs, the attire as deep black as his beady eyes. The man’s distorted features sent a chill down Benji’s spine, and his sobs caught in his throat. 

It is, Black Pharaoh, the voices bounced around Benji’s skull. 

The man nodded. “And the subliminal programming? With Kennedy in office, our plans are handicapped. We need to know they’ll be ready to strike when the time is right.” 

They know what to do, the grey people responded, bowing respectfully. 

Black Pharaoh glanced at Benji. “You kept the child again?” 

They looked amongst themselves, seemingly alarmed, but he chuckled dismissively. 

“No, no, it’s fine. My creations deserve a treat. Let’s take off.” 

One of the grey people turned to a control panel on the curved wall, and Benji felt his stomach cartwheel as they rapidly rose into the air, jettisoning through the clouds. The moon’s glow filtered into the silver room, causing the world around Benji to glisten, and the grey people turned to face him. Where their mouths were missing, he saw a separation form, and their faces split open, revealing rows of pointed, sharklike teeth. They smiled, the expressions wicked, despite their dead, black eyes. His heart thudded wildly now, trying its hardest to replace the blood he was about to sacrifice. 

He knew it wouldn’t be enough. 


Khufu’s Tale, Pt. 3 – Enemy Lines 

“So, come here often?” 

The Recruit, concentrating on swallowing his anxieties, almost didn’t realize that the large, burly white man across the aisle was speaking to him. He looked up, wiping the sweat from his brow.  

“Excuse me?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the engine of their small plane. 

The man who’d spoken exchanged glances with the soldier next to him, the only other person in the plane besides the pilot. They chuckled, and the burly white man returned his attention to the Recruit. 

“Me and Match, here, we’ve seen some hell since this war started. Same with Wing, up in the cockpit. But you, you’re just a kid. How old are you?” 

The Recruit averted his gaze. “Eighteen, sir.” 

“Eighteen,” the man grumbled. “And colored, too. Back in the States, we just started letting colored people serve, but they aren’t mixed in with the others. What makes you so special?” 

“I’m not from America, mate,” the Recruit clarified. “I’m from Australia.” 

“Yeah, I figured by the accent,” the man retorted. “But that’s not what I asked. There’s only four of us on this plane, flying to God-knows-where for some top-secret bullshit. What’s a colored kid doing in here with us?”  

“Ah.” The Recruit said dryly. “I’m a sniper. I have top marksman scores. My name is–” 

“I don’t give a shit about your name, Recruit,” the American said. 

“We don’t do that here,” Match added in a thick British accent. “Makes it too personal. Like he said, I’m Match, and the pilot is Wing.” 

“And I’m Brick,” the American added. 

“What does that make me?” the Recruit asked. 

“’Recruit’ will do just fine for now,” responded Brick. “Now, Recruit, do you know what we’re doing?” 

The Recruit shook his head. “I don’t. I assumed one of you did. I don’t even know where we are.” 

“Transylvania,” Wing called back from the cockpit, his accent faintly French. “You know, with the castles and monsters?” 

“We’re being sent to Eastern Europe?” the Recruit wondered aloud, glancing at the mass of trees beyond the airplane window. “Why?” 

“We don’t know,” Wing replied. “I was told to collect you three and land us at these coordinates.” 

“I was only instructed to get on the plane, just like you,” added Match. “They mentioned I should bring my demolition supplies.” 

“Supposedly, I’m the squad leader,” Brick finished. “But I’ve been given a letter with further directions; a letter which I am not allowed to open until we land.” 

He reached into his jacket pocket, producing a white envelope. “It’s all very dramatic.” 

Match nodded at the Recruit’s carrying case. “What kind of rifle do you shoot with?” 

The Recruit smiled. “Lee-Enfield, Mark Three. Modified with a heavy barrel and a telescopic sight, of course.” 

Brick grunted. “That fires .303 rounds, yeah?” 

Leaning back, the Recruit nodded. 

“What about your sidearm?” pressed Brick. 

Match and Wing groaned simultaneously.  

“Here we go again,” muttered Match. 

Ignoring them, Brick met eyes with the Recruit. “What sidearm do you use?” 

The Recruit reached into his case, retrieving a revolver. “Same manufacturer. It’s–”  

“You use a revolver?” Brick interrupted, scoffing. “Have you ever been in a firefight before?” 

Next to him, Match rolled his eyes. 

“I haven’t,” the Recruit admitted. “But I’ve trained–” 

“What you need is, something with more firepower,” interjected Brick a second time, reaching into a bag next him. “Something that won’t give up the ghost after six shots.” 

He produced a black semi-automatic pistol with a wooden grip. “The 1911. American-made. Impeccable accuracy, thanks to the trigger design, and after you put eight holes in your target with those ACP rounds, they ain’t going nowhere. It’s some modern cowboy shit.” 

“I, uh . . .” The Recruit hesitated as Brick offered the weapon to him. “I can’t just take your sidearm.”  

“Sure you can,” Brick insisted. “I brought spares, just for recruits like you.” 

“You might as well,” Match added, holding up his own 1911. “He’s very persistent.” 

Sighing, the Recruit gently took the pistol from the American, following up with some spare magazines. Leaning down, he stuffed them in his duffel bag. 

“I found our landing strip,” Wing announced, turning the plane. “It’s not much, though. Prepare to get bumpy.” 

He veered down, and the Recruit gripped his seat, gritting his teeth in a useless attempt to combat the g-force of the maneuver. Wing lowered them past the tree line, settling onto a long, lush clearing. They rumbled over grass and rocks and branches, and the Recruit felt his bones rattle. Across the aisle, Brick and Match laughed hysterically, as if they were on a roller coaster. Much to the Recruit’s relief, they finally began to slow, shuddering to a stop amongst the trees and wildlife. 

“Now, wasn’t that fun?” Wing joked, glancing back at the others.  

Brick stood up, stretching. “Just like Coney Island. Let’s get outside and see why we’re here.” 

The squad disembarked, collecting their gear and strapping it to their bodies as they exited the plane. As they gathered around Brick, he retrieved the letter, opening and unfolding it. Glancing at his comrades, he cleared his throat, reading aloud. 

“Mission Report: Operation Sarcophagus. If you’re reading this, you’ve been indoctrinated into the ground floor of a global, collaborative effort to stop Adolf Hitler and his despicable regime. It is our hope that this new United Nations, when made public, will create a future of peace unlike anything we’ve previously known. For the moment, however, war is necessary, and we need brave men like you to carry it out in secret today.” 

Brick glanced up at the others before continuing. 

“Five kilometers East of your landing coordinates stands a secret Nazi installation that, as far as we know, has remained hidden from our combined intelligence agencies until now. From what we understand, this installation is the home and laboratory of a high-ranking Nazi scientist, who we only know as ‘Black Pharaoh.’ He is supposedly on the brink of developing a new weapon; a weapon that will end the war and secure the Axis’s rise to global power.” 

“What kind of weapon?” Match interrupted. 

Brick shook his head. “It doesn’t say. Just listen.” 

Shuffling the paper, he finished. 

“Your mission is twofold. First, infiltrate the installation, acquire this weapon, and destroy any ability for the Nazis to recreate it. Second, dispose of this Black Pharaoh, so he may not continue to serve Hitler’s army. Good luck, soldiers.” 

Brick folded the paper silently, stuffing it back into its envelope. 

The Recruit scratched his head. “We’re behind enemy lines right now.” 

“Seems like it,” Wing commented, looking around as he gripped his carbine rifle. “So, where’s the enemy?” 

A gentle breeze blew through the trees, generating a faint howl, and the Recruit shivered. 

________________ 

For the next few hours, Brick’s squad carefully trudged through the Transylvanian forest, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity. Strangely, they encountered no resistance, not even hearing a peep from local wildlife. As they progressed, the sun began to set, casting ever-lengthening shadows across the grassy floor. Any chatter that they’d initiated during their journey faded to silence as they trekked forward with bated breath. 

The moon suddenly emerged from smoky black clouds, casting a pale glow across the four soldiers. For the umpteenth time, a chill wind rushed past them, and the Recruit heard another faint howl. The leaves rustled, then settled, and the world grew quiet. They took another step forward before being interrupted by the howl again. 

This time, there was no wind. 

Immediately, the four men huddled together, back-to-back, facing North, South, East, and West. They raised their respective weapons: Brick’s pump-action shotgun, Match’s Tommy gun, Wing’s carbine, and the Recruit’s Lee-Enfield. Around them, the forest shifted, leaves trembling as something large approached them. 

“What do you think it is?” Match whispered. “A pack of wolves?” 

“I don’t know,” admitted Brick. “Just be ready.” 

Suddenly, a large, hulking shadow barreled out of the trees, veering straight for the squad. They separated, diving out of the way, and it raced past them in a blur, huffing with a low, gravelly growl. The four men turned to fire, but it had disappeared back into the foliage. As they climbed to their feet, Wing spun in a circle, eyes wide. 

“That was a bear!” he exclaimed in a loud whisper. “It came right for us!” 

Brick shook his head, leveling his shotgun in the direction the creature had disappeared. “I don’t think so. Something’s not right here.” 

In the shadows appeared a pair of glowing red eyes, and the Recruit heard a deep growl rumble through the evening air.  

“Fuck this,” Match said, stepping forward and opening fire with his Tommy gun. The forest lit up with muzzle flashes, and a wave of bullets shredded the leaves and splintered the tree bark. To the Recruit’s surprise, the glowing eyes faded backwards, disappearing in the gloom. Match stopped firing and turned around, smiling at the group. “See? Nothing but–” 

From the darkness erupted a ten-foot bipedal beast, its fur coarse and black, its snout long and glistening. Tattered clothes, the remnants of a white cloth shirt and loose white pants, hung from its muscular frame, and a silver collar locked around its neck, adorned with tiny lights that glowed bright red, just like the beast’s eyes. The giant animal dashed across the grass at Match, extending thick arms and producing razor-sharp claws from its fingertips. 

“Match!” cried the Recruit, leaping at the British soldier. He tackled him just as the beast swiped its hands, its claws whistling above their heads as they crashed back to the ground.  

Even as they landed, the Recruit heard Brick and Wing open fire with their weapons, bullets whizzing into the animal’s fur. The projectiles disappeared with nothing but whispers, and the beast jerked in their direction, roaring.  

“It’s not a bear,” Wing gulped.  

“No,” agreed Brick. “It’s some kind of Human Wolf.” 

The Recruit rolled to his feet, shouldering his Lee-Enfield and quickly taking aim at the monster. It seemed to sense his intent, because it turned to look at him, red eyes connecting with his own. Before it could react, he squeezed the trigger, sending a .303 round rocketing between the Human Wolf’s eyes. The bullet struck the creature’s forehead, flattening against it before ricocheting into the grass. The force of the gunshot seemed to disrupt the Human Wolf, though, because for a moment, its red eyes flickered, as if a bulb in its skull had shorted. Then, the collar around its neck hummed loudly, and the redness steadied, bringing the creature’s attention back to the Recruit. 

“Oh . . .” the Recruit whispered. “Oh no.” 

Brick ran at the Human Wolf, blasting shotgun rounds into its midsection. As he drew close, he caught the thing under the chin with one of the blasts, and it staggered back a little, red eyes flickering once more. As the Recruit watched, the collar hummed again, helping the creature regain its focus.  

Wait a second.  

“Brick!” he yelled, racking the bolt on the side of his Lee-Enfield to chamber the next round. “Get out of the way!” 

His warning came too late, however; the Human Wolf leaned forward and backhanded Brick across the face, sending him flying through the air. The American landed on his back with a heavy thud, groaning loudly.  

“Match! Wing!” The Recruit called. “I have an idea, but I need a moment!” 

“You got it,” Match responded, and Wing nodded. Together, the two men opened fire on the Human Wolf, spreading apart until they were at the creature’s ten o’clock and two o’clock positions. It snarled, looking back and forth, seemingly confused about who to attack first. 

Got you, thought the Recruit, peering down his scope. 

He pulled the trigger once more, and for the second time, a .303 round barreled across the forest, striking the Human Wolf. This time, however, the bullet cracked against the side of the beast’s collar, shattering the device. The metal contraption dropped to the forest floor, red lights fading to darkness, and simultaneously, the Human Wolf’s eyes flickered from red to white. It stumbled back, searching around itself in sharp, panicked motions, before sprinting off into the tree line, panting heavily. 

As it ran away, the dark forest fell into a hushed silence again. 

“Qu’est-ce que c’était que ça?” exclaimed Wing, his voice cracking. 

“My feelings exactly,” Match muttered, glancing at the Recruit. “How did you know?” 

“I didn’t,” the Recruit admitted. “I just made an informed guess.” 

He walked over to the fallen collar, kicking it into the foliage. 

“Jeez-US!” interrupted Brick, still on his back with his eyes closed. “My body feels like it was flattened by a steamroller.” 

Match and the Recruit rushed to help him up, the former chuckling, “Oh hush, you baby.” 

Brick opened his eyes, holding up his hands, and froze. “Hey, Wing?” 

Wing looked up from reloading his carbine. “Yeah?” 

“What was it you said about Transylvania in the plane?” 

“Oh.” Wing thought for a moment. “I said it had castles and monsters.” 

“Well, we know about the monsters now,” Brick replied, pointing past them. “And there’s the other thing.” 

Match, Wing, and the Recruit turned to look above the trees, where the forest began to slope into a mountain. In the distance, a stone castle jutted up at the starry sky, orange light glowing from its sharply-cut windows.  

“What do you know,” Wing commented. “East, just like our destination.” 

Match and the Recruit helped Brick to his feet, and he brushed himself off, retrieving his shotgun. “No time to waste, then.” 

In the distance, the Recruit heard a haunting, lonely howl. 

________________ 

It took little time for them to reach a point in the forest where the trees began to thin, leaving the moonlit stone castle looming over them. The Recruit gripped his Lee-Enfield tightly, his eyes nervously darting back and forth in the darkness. 

“So, we’re not going to talk about what just happened?” whispered Match. 

“Shh!” Wing hissed back. 

Brick grumbled for a moment to himself, then muttered, “Doesn’t matter. The mission stays the same.” 

“If anything,” the Recruit added, “this makes the mission more imperative. We don’t want that thing running around our streets, if it came from Black Pharaoh.” 

Brick shot him a glance. “The Recruit speaks some sense.” 

“What do you think’s waiting for us up in the castle?” Match nervously asked. 

Brick chuckled. “Probably some showgirls in their lingerie, waiting for four dirty, sweaty men in fatigues to come give them a good time.” 

“Oh, good,” Match responded sarcastically. “I was worried it’d be wolfmen and Nazis.” 

The Recruit took another step forward, but the grass crunched like glass beneath his boot, and he paused. Slowly panning his head down, he saw that the greenery around him had turned white and glistening. The others stopped, too, and he rotated in a circle, registering that the entire forest was encased in a thin layer of ice. To punctuate this realization, his next breath produced a thick fog, partially obscuring his vision. 

“Christ above,” Brick moaned. “What now, the abominable snowman?” 

Something crackled in the distance, just beyond the Recruit’s line of sight, and he saw movement in the shadows.  

“Wait,” he said. “Did you see that?” 

More movement, on the other side now. Then, footsteps behind the Recruit. He looked over his shoulder, but saw nothing. 

“We’re surrounded,” whispered Wing, his carbine shaking in his hands. 

The Recruit spied the glimmer of a small glass object in the moonlight, past the shadows of the trees. Realization struck him, and he dove to his stomach as a gunshot rang out. Behind him, tree bark splintered as something small and fast struck out, sending a sharp crack echoing throughout the forest. He quickly returned fire with his rifle, and the distant glimmer disappeared. 

“Snipers,” he announced, chambering a new round. “Stay sharp.” 

Another gunshot, from his left this time, and Wing spiraled to the ground, clutching his right arm. Match took point over Wing, spraying a barrage of bullets from his Tommy gun in the sniper’s direction. The first sniper reappeared in front of the Recruit, their second shot striking Match’s weapon and shattering it to pieces.  

The Recruit felt the frozen earth already seeping into his clothes, and he rolled to his feet, sprinting forward to place a thick tree between the first sniper and himself. As he skidded to a stop, a bullet whistled past his face, close enough to tickle his right ear, and he felt a flood of adrenaline heat up his extremities like a campfire. The other three soldiers scattered, using the trees as protection. Wing tossed his carbine to Match, using his free hands to tie off his shoulder wound before drawing his 1911 pistol.  

Beneath his feet, the Recruit felt the ground crack, the ice flaking away from the blades of grass as the earth exploded upwards in chunks. From below rose a mottled blue hand, its fingers stiff and steaming. A dirty sleeve appeared next, but through the muck, the Recruit could make out the telltale design of a Nazi military uniform. A second hand appeared, closer to the Recruit’s leg, and he yelped, stumbling backwards. Around him, the Recruit saw more bodies rising from the earth, six already visible, with others surely coming. 

A blue face emerged from the ground near the Recruit, twisted in a hollow expression of pain and terror. Now, with its upper half exposed, the Frozen Soldier used its arms as leverage to jerk itself out of the earth, its dead eyes focused on the Recruit. Moving quickly, the Recruit slung his Lee-Enfield over his shoulder, unholstering the 1911 Brick had gifted him. He took aim and planted three bullets in the Frozen Soldier’s face, which merely rocked back and forth as each round chipped away chunks of hardened flesh.  

Nearby, the Recruit heard Brick’s shotgun boom, and turned in time to see the head of the Frozen Soldier nearest the American explode into icy bits. Brick pumped the weapon, ejecting an empty shell and readying a new one. Another Frozen Soldier emerged, grabbing his leg, and he spun around, firing down at the ground to decimate the would-be attacker. 

Elsewhere, Match and Wing stood back-to-back, firing at the rising undead, but their smaller-caliber weapons were having as much effect as the Recruit’s sidearm. One of the Frozen Soldiers rushed at them, but Wing dropped low, sweeping its legs out from under it. Before it could return to its feet, Match shoved a live grenade into its open mouth, and the pair dove away as the creature detonated in a cacophony of light and sound.  

Returning his attention to the immediate threat in front of him, the Recruit leaned forward, shoving the barrel of his 1911 against the Frozen Soldier’s eye socket. It reached up, wrapping cold, stiff hands around his wrists, but before it could cause any damage, he squeezed the trigger, firing a .45 round directly into the creature’s skull. The Frozen Soldier jerked away from him, falling limply onto the ice-covered grass. 

Suddenly, something struck the Recruit’s backpack, the force of it almost knocking him over. He spun around to see that the glass glimmer had returned. Growling, he unslung his Lee-Enfield, shouldering the rifle. 

“I’m going after the snipers!” he announced, rushing towards the glimmer. 

“Go!” Brick yelled, disintegrating another Frozen Soldier with his shotgun. “We’ve got this!” 

The Recruit saw the glimmer flash, and he pivoted his body, narrowly avoiding another terminal blow as a bullet whizzed past. Slamming against the nearest tree, he peered around the trunk with the scope of his rifle, seeking out his opponent. About a hundred meters away lay another Frozen Soldier, prone in the icy earth and hugging a large sniper rifle. The sight caused the Recruit to double-take; he hadn’t expected such a sophisticated tactic from these things. 

The creature spied him, however, and took aim with remarkable speed, firing at him as he ducked back behind his tree. The bark exploded, and he spun around the side opposite the Frozen Soldier’s line of sight, closing the gap between them. Unstrapping his backpack, he tossed it to the ground, quickly retrieving his emergency flare gun. He loaded a flare, blindly firing around the tree in the direction of the Frozen Soldier.  

As the burning projectile rocketed through the forest, bright light obscuring the space between the Recruit and the Frozen Soldier, the Recruit crept through the trees, shifting his position until he stood slightly behind the sniper. The creature shuffled, standing to its feet to find a spot away from the flare, and the Recruit took aim with his Lee-Enfield, firing into the back of its skull. The bullet burrowed into the Frozen Soldier’s head, and it slumped over like a sack of bricks. 

One down, thought the Recruit. One to go. 

He dashed through the forest, on the outskirts of the battle the others waged. Nearby, a Frozen Soldier emerged from behind a tree, and he reacted almost instinctively, unsheathing the Lee-Enfield’s detached bayonet on his hip and burying the blade into the creature’s eye socket. As it collapsed, he jerked his weapon back out, returning it to its holster. The glimmer of the second sniper caught his eye, and he reoriented himself, angling towards the attacker. 

Rather than try to pick him off from the distance, the Recruit saw this second sniper rise to its feet, shuffling in the shadows. He steeled himself, dropping to one knee and firing at the shadow’s head. The Frozen Soldier seemed to dodge the shot, pulling something from within the folds of its Nazi uniform and hurling it at the Recruit. The Recruit stumbled back, holding his Lee-Enfield out as a shield. A hatchet emerged from the gloom, spinning through the air and colliding with his rifle with enough force to break it in half before ricocheting to the ground. 

Swearing, the Recruit tossed the bisected gun to the ground, drawing his 1911. Ahead, the Frozen Soldier hurled itself at him, and he opened fire with the sidearm, the shots connecting with the attacker’s upper torso without leaving any notable damage. He grabbed for his bayonet again, but the Frozen Soldier reached him first, picking him up by his shirt and tossing him backwards several meters. The Recruit landed with enough force to knock the breath from his lungs, and he tumbled back into the area where the others were. 

No. Where the others had been.  

The Recruit rolled onto his back, looking around the silent patch of frost-covered forest. His squadmates were gone, along with the other Frozen Soldiers. Their weapons and gear littered the ground, and the Recruit could make out a disturbed patch of ground where several people – or bodies – had been dragged away. He felt his mouth go dry as his absolute isolation registered in his head. 

The final Frozen Soldier stalked into view, approaching the Recruit with menace. The Recruit fumbled around, hunting for something with which to defend himself. His hands quickly found a molded, wooden handle, and he sighed in relief. The Frozen Soldier picked up a thick, ice-covered tree branch, holding it over its head with the pointed end aimed at the Recruit’s chest. Crouching, it leapt into the air, whistling downwards with lethal force. 

The Recruit twisted his body, revealing Brick’s discarded shotgun. He hip-fired from a prone position, blasting a thick cloud of metal pellets up into the Frozen Soldier’s body. The force of the blast knocked the creature to the side, punching a fist-sized hole through its upper torso. It landed next to the Recruit, tumbling away, and came to a silent stop, the tree branch slipping from its lifeless hand. 

The Recruit dropped his shotgun, releasing a slow, shaky breath, and pulled himself to his feet. Around him, the ground began to rapidly thaw, melting into sludge. He grabbed all the supplies he could carry and hurried out of the area, chasing after the path his friends had made when they were dragged away. As sweat beaded down his face, a thought popped into his head. 

If this is in the forest, what’s in the castle?  

________________ 

After another thirty minutes or so, the Recruit reached the edge of the forest, crawling up to a hilltop overlooking the castle’s courtyard. Using the telescopic sight scavenged from his broken Lee-Enfield, he surveyed the scene below. It seemed that normal, human soldiers patrolled the entrance to the stone fortress; Nazi soldiers, but human soldiers nonetheless. They wore heavy military garb and, strangely, gas masks. 

The Recruit’s eyes followed one particular guard, who wore a large metal tank attached to some kind of hose. The guard approached a small shed at the edge of the forest, sliding open a peephole to view inside. Screams of protest exploded from within, and the Recruit’s eyes widened. 

There’s someone in there. A local villager, maybe, or even a POW. 

Before the Recruit could react, the guard inserted the hose into the peephole, activating the tank on his back. The Recruit heard a loud hiss, and after a few seconds, the screaming subsided. After pausing for a moment, the guard opened the door, dragging a man in tattered white clothes out onto the grass. 

“Black Pharaoh is ready for Ionescu,” he announced to two other masked men. “The new control collar is prepared.” 

Control collar? wondered the Recruit. He examined the man’s clothes more closely, and his eyes widened. The Human Wolf. More human than wolf, now. 

As the two other men dragged Ionescu away, the tank-wearing guard held back to close the shed. The Recruit saw his chance, crawling backwards a few meters before whistling a bird’s song. He gave the guard a moment to take interest, then whistled again, drawing his bayonet.  

It took mere seconds for the guard to crest the hill, his moonlit shadow betraying his appearance. The Recruit leapt to his feet, shoving the blade into the man’s windpipe. As the Nazi choked on metal and blood, the Recruit tackled him to the ground, covering his mouth to muffle his cries. Before long, the man fell limp, and the Recruit went to work undressing him, donning his gas mask and uniform.  

Heart pounding in his chest, the Recruit approached the courtyard in his disguise, nodding at the other guards while they made their rounds. He saw one of them enter an old wooden side door into the castle, and he followed the man, hands shaking anxiously. Much to his surprise, the other guards gave him no second glance, and he reached the door with ease, pausing to take a deep breath. 

Then, without hesitating for another second, the Recruit entered Black Pharaoh’s lair. 

________________ 

The cold stone walls closed around the Recruit as he navigated the tight corridors of Black Pharaoh’s castle. To avoid suspicion, he stuck close to a larger group of Nazis, following them through the facility while he mentally mapped it out. After a few minutes, he heard a loud assortment of electrical crackles and terrified screams; concerned, he strode in the direction of the sounds. It didn’t take long for him to turn the corner into an observation deck which overlooked a stage. 

“Please, please,” begged a woman in worn farm clothes, struggling against the chains that bound her to a chair on the stage. “Don’t kill me. I have a family to care for.” 

Two guard walked past the Recruit, and he resisted the urge to run, remembering his disguise. Below, an abnormally pale man in a Nazi general’s uniform walked into view, his back to the Recruit. 

Black Pharaoh, the Recruit thought, his hand absently resting on the 1911 pistol attached to his hip. 

“Now, now,” the man said, his voice full of cold indifference, “don’t beg. It’s undignified.” 

He rolled what appeared to be a large, silver flashlight on wheels into the center of the room, aiming it at the stage. After he flicked a series of switches on the side, the device began to hum, the sound almost rhythmic. The Recruit frowned from behind his gas mask, leaning closer. 

It almost sounded like . . . music. 

The music-flashlight reached a pitch that began to tickle the Recruit’s ears, the entire device shuddering a little, as if a wildcat had been loosed within. The woman screamed, squeezing her eyes shut, and turned her head away. Then, the device emitted a split-second flicker of green light, and the woman, her chains, and her chair vanished.  

The Recruit leaned against the railing of the observation deck, wide-eyed. 

On the center of the stage lay a long, flat shadow, its features distinctive to the woman who’d been present a moment earlier. The woman’s shadow seemed to look around, moving independently, before twisting and deforming, like smoke caught in a tornado. It ripped apart, writhing in agony, the pieces of faint darkness sucked into other nearby shadows until nothing of the woman remained. 

His heart pounding in his chest, the recruit turned away, staggering out of the room. 

What was that? he thought, stumbling through the stone halls. Some kind of . . . death ray? 

He paused to catch his breath, his thoughts racing.  

They said Black Pharaoh would weaponize this device for the Nazis. Something like this, on a larger scale, could decimate the Allied forces instantly. There’d be no stopping Hitler.  

A familiar voice echoed through the castle, snapping him back to the present. 

“Hey! I’m talking to you! What, you got sauerkraut for brains?” 

Brick. 

The Recruit hurried towards the voice, brushing past guards as nonchalantly as possible. Trotting down a tight, twisting staircase, he found himself in some kind of small dungeon. On one side of the room sat the Recruit’s squad, encased in a cage of iron bars; on the other stood two guards, who murmured to one another over Brick’s defiant cries. It was these guards whom the Recruit approached, waving. They turned to look at him, saying something in German that the Recruit didn’t quite catch. He opted not to respond, drawing closer, and they looked him up and down. 

“Aren’t you supposed to be outside?” one asked in English. 

“Oh, uh,” the Recruit cleared his throat. “I was sent inside to keep an eye on Ionescu. They’re putting a new collar on him.” 

“Ionescu, huh?” the other guard repeated suspiciously. Turning to the side, he pointed at the cell next to Brick’s, where the man in tattered white clothes sat. “You mean that Ionescu?” 

The Recruit acted quickly, drawing his bayonet and plunging it into the guard’s heart. The man gasped, clutching his chest and preventing the Recruit from retrieving his blade as he fell to the floor. Behind the Recruit, the second guard drew his pistol, but the Recruit swung around, roundhouse-kicking the weapon from his hand. He followed up with a back-kick into the guard’s stomach, sending the man sliding backwards. 

I can’t make too much noise, he thought, frantically searching around for a weapon. I can take this guard, but I can’t take them all. 

His eyes settled on the fallen guard, focusing on the stick grenade on his belt. Crouching, he removed the device, an explosive cylinder attached to a long handle. He gripped the handle now, turning to swing it like a club at the second guard’s head. The metal cracked against the man’s skull, and he crashed into the wall, dazed. The Recruit followed up with a strike to the lower left kneecap, bringing him to the ground, and a third swing onto the bridge of his nose. Blood sprayed from the guard’s face as he went white and collapsed.  

“Well, a Nazi with some sense,” joked Wing. “And I thought I’d seen everything today.” 

The Recruit rolled his eyes from behind his mask, retrieving the guard’s keys and unlocking the cell doors. In the adjacent cell, Ionescu stood to his feet, arms wrapped around his chest.  

“Can you let me out, too?” 

Looking him up and down, the Recruit asked, “Didn’t you try to eat us earlier?” 

“What?” Match whispered, wide-eyed. 

“I’m truly sorry about that,” the man responded, his accent thickly Eastern European. “My name is Luca. I’m a scientist who was recruited by force to assist the Nazis. They threatened my family until I helped them develop a biological weapon, and then they killed my family and turned me into the weapon. I don’t want to be here any more than you do.” 

“I saw Black Pharaoh,” the Recruit commented. “He was testing some kind of . . . death ray. What do you know about that?” 

Luca shrugged. “They make all kinds of strange weapons here. Whatever you’re describing, it’s not what they took me for.” 

“So, you’re the Human Wolf, huh?” Brick said. “Can you, you know, change whenever you want?” 

Luca nodded, and the Recruit saw the spark of an idea form behind his eyes. “You’re all here to destroy the weapons, right?” 

“We’re here to take the weapons,” Match clarified. “And to destroy Black Pharaoh.” 

Eyes widening, Luca clutched the bars of his cage. “You can’t let the Americans, or anyone else, have anything from this castle. You don’t understand the kinds of things Black Pharaoh has made. All it takes is one mistake, or one wrong person in power, and you won’t have a home to come back to.” 

The Recruit sighed. “He’s right. What I saw, what we’ve all seen tonight . . . it’s too dangerous. We can win this war without zombies and death rays.” 

“What’s a zombie?” muttered Brick. 

“Look, I’ll make you a deal,” Luca pressed. “Let me go, and I’ll create a distraction on my way out. It’ll give you time to destroy the weapons and kill Black Pharaoh.” 

The Recruit glanced at the others, then back at Luca, unlocking his cell. “Deal.” 

With Luca’s help, they made quick work stripping the guards. After a short debate, Match and Wing donned the uniforms, using fake bonds to present Brick as a prisoner. Luca helped them map out where their weapons and supplies were likely taken, and the squad prepared to leave, watching the man anxiously. He smiled back at them, his innocent grin growing devilish. 

“Your friends and family will never believe this.” 

His eyes glazed over, the pupils and irises fading to solid white, and he hunched over, straining against some kind of invisible force. Flesh and muscle pulsated, enlarging rapidly, as coarse black fur sprouted from his pores. His body stretched towards the ceiling, and his face elongated, forming a tooth-filled snout. Within seconds, the man had become beast, and it towered over them, more wolf than human. 

Brick offered the creature a thumbs-up. “Give ‘em hell.” 

The Human Wolf lumbered out of the room, nails scraping against the stone walls. Within seconds, the Recruit heard terrified screams, followed by machine-gun fire. He nodded to the others, and they hurried into the hallway, lugging Brick behind them as a faux prisoner. They made their way across floors covered in bullet casings and past mangled Nazi bodies, following Luca’s directions to the armory.  

“There,” Match pointed, leading them over to an old wooden door in the wall. 

They opened the door, leaning inside a large storage room filled with plywood shelves. Match rummaged around for a moment before finding his bag, and he looked up at the others, grinning.  

“A little bit of napalm to give our esteemed host a nasty burn.” 

Slinging the bag over his shoulder, they rushed out of the storage room, their footsteps drowned out by the violent noises emanating from elsewhere in the castle. The Recruit gestured for them to follow him, and they twisted through the maze of corridors until they reached the observation deck over the laboratory. 

“There,” the Recruit whispered, pointing at the silver, flashlight-like device, still on the stage. “That thing.” 

They ran for the stairs, descending to the stage floor. A few lingering scientists appeared, protesting, but Brick and Wing knocked them unconscious with the butts of their weapons. Match began to set up the explosives both on device and around the rest of the laboratory, and the Recruit drew his 1911, swiveling his head around in search of danger. 

Danger, of course, found them immediately. 

“I see we have guests,” a low voice boomed from the observation deck. “How rude of me not to prepare anything for you.” 

The Recruit’s eyes flicked upwards, fixating on the pale-faced man over his head. He immediately took aim, firing three rounds at center mass. The bullets struck the man’s chest, but deflected away, each ricochet producing a shower of blinding white sparks. The Recruit glanced at Brick and Wing, who opened fire with their stolen guns. The sparks grew more intense, shimmering around the man, but he merely stared at them through beady eyes, seemingly unharmed. The trio of shooters lowered their weapons, barrels smoking. 

“Black Pharaoh,” growled Brick. “You aren’t just a Nazi scientist, are you?” 

Black Pharaoh smirked, placing one hand on the railing of the observation deck. “Allow me to demonstrate the veracity of your statement.” 

He vaulted over the railing, landing with a heavy thud in the middle of the three soldiers. Wing took aim with his sub-machine gun, but Black Pharaoh covered the barrel of the weapon as he fired, his impenetrable skin causing a rapid pressure spike as the bullets collided with each other. The gun exploded in Wing’s hands, and Black Pharaoh followed up with a palm strike to the abdomen and another to the chest, the latter sending Wing sprawling across the room.  

Brick ran at the Nazi, knife in one hand and 1911 in the other, opening fire into Black Pharaoh’s face as he closed the gap between them. The bullets sparked away, but the act obscured the man’s vision, and Brick rushed in, stabbing at his heart. The tip of his knife broke away, and Brick cried out in surprise as Black Pharaoh grabbed him by the neck with one hand, lifting him into the air. 

The Recruit reacted immediately, opening fire on the back of Black Pharaoh’s skull. As expected, the bullets caused no harm, but he was able to distract the Nazi enough to give Brick a chance to free himself from the man’s grip. Black Pharaoh turned to the Recruit, snarling, and before the Recruit could react, he lashed out with a palm strike to the throat. To the Recruit, it felt as if he’d swallowed a sledgehammer, and he stumbled backwards, choking. The Nazi scientist followed up with a spinning back-kick to the Recruit’s chest, sending the soldier flying across the room and onto his back. 

Stars flickering before the Recruit’s eyes, he looked around groggily, finally focusing on one of the napalm charges adhered to the side of the death ray. He struggled to his feet as Black Pharaoh approached Brick and Wing, engaging them in hand-to-hand combat. Turning around, the Recruit located Match, who was hunched over a table stacked with paper documents.  

“Match,” he choked out, his voice still raspy. “You ever play baseball?” 

Match turned, eyebrow raised inquisitively, and the Recruit gestured to the explosive in his hand. He smirked, rearing back one arm in Black Pharaoh’s direction. Brick and Wing saw what was about to happen, and they rolled away from the Nazi in opposite directions. Match hurled the napalm bomb at Black Pharaoh’s back, the device whipping across the room, but at the last second, the man spun on his heels, snatching it from the air. Black Pharaoh chuckled, glancing down at the bomb. 

“You’d think the collective intelligence of the Allied forces would come up with a less primitive–” 

The Recruit fired a single shot from his 1911, the bullet striking the bomb and detonating it in Black Pharaoh’s hand. 

Thunder and flame filled the room, swallowing Black Pharaoh and obscuring him from the Recruit’s view. The fire splashed onto the stone walls and floors, slowly spreading to the laboratory equipment. As the smoke cleared, the Recruit found Black Pharaoh face-down, still ablaze, near a window all the way across the room. The Recruit nodded in satisfaction, but to his shock, the Nazi scientist began to stir, white sparks shooting out of the flames.  

“I can’t believe it,” Wing gasped. “It’s like he’s immortal.” 

The Recruit sprinted over stone, rushing to reach Black Pharaoh before he could fully recover. The man stumbled to his feet, wreathed in fire, and turned to growl at the Recruit’s rapid approach. Rather than giving him the chance to react, the Recruit leapt into the air, drill-kicking the Nazi in the chest with both feet. The force of the kick propelled Black Pharaoh backwards enough to strike the nearby window, crashing through it and careening down into the trees three stories below. 

“God damn, Recruit,” Brick exclaimed. “That was one hell of a kick. You kick like a . . . like a . . . what’s that thing that makes trains move?” 

“Piston,” Wing answered, wiping blood from his nose. “He kicks like a Piston.” 

“That’s right.” Brick turned to address the Recruit. “Good work . . . Piston.” 

“Hey, we need to move,” Match interrupted, waving at them with both arms. “The other napalm charges are going to ignite at any moment!” 

He shoved them out of the room, climbing back to the observation deck and returning to the mazelike hallways of the castle. They barely made it to the other end of the first hallway before a deafening explosion rocked the walls, heat and light splashing the back of their necks. A shrill, demonic cry wafted through the air, and Piston saw flashing green light for a moment before the other end of the hallway imploded, collapsing the entrance to the laboratory beneath a mountain of rubble.  

“Let’s get out of here!” Wing yelled, and they hurried for the stairs, rushing to get out before the castle collapsed or the remaining Nazis caught them.  

“We failed,” lamented Piston as they ran. “We destroyed the weapons, but the United Nations will want to know why we didn’t bring anything back with us. Not to mention Black Pharaoh . . . I doubt he died from that fall.” 

Brick glanced at him. “Yeah, I suppose we did fail, for the most part. But, at the end of the day, we made the world a little safer, and maybe we’ve given the Allies enough time to defeat Hitler without their secret weapon.” 

“Besides,” laughed Wing as they exited the castle, “imagine how great of a story this will make for your grandkids one day.” 

Piston chuckled, diving into the forest with his comrades, one step closer to home. 


Khufu’s Tale, Pt. 4 – An Apple a Day 

Day 1. 

Zahur stood in awe at the entrance of the palace, overwhelmed by the beauty of the reds and blues and golds and familiar tan of the Egyptian sands. Surrounding him stood a courtyard of sorts, the exterior walls supported by thick columns and decorated with hundreds of carefully drawn pictograms. In the center of the courtyard grew a cluster of palms trees, bushes, and flowers which Zahur couldn’t quite recognize. As he admired the foliage, a pair of palace guards approached him, gesturing for him to follow them to the throne room. 

“Who comes before me while I toil?” demanded a low, booming voice in the distance. 

Rounding a corner, Zahur saw his pharaoh, Lord Khufu, huddled over a large, golden chamber near his throne. The structure resembled a small gazebo, albeit one with long, tree-like branches protruding from the top and embedding into the palace ceiling. Khufu grasped a crank on one of the chamber’s columns, spinning it, and Zahur’s eyes widened in amazement as small arcs of green lightning flickered between the golden branches. 

“A peasant boy from the Western village,” one of the guards responded. “He comes to you for aid.” 

Khufu turned sharply, standing up inside the chamber. He took a few long strides out into the throne room, descending a short flight of stairs to approach the boy. Stopping an arm’s length away, he crouched, joining Zahur at eye level. His sunbaked skin practically glowed bronze in the palace light. 

“How old are you, boy?” he asked. 

“I’ve lived through ten risings of Sirius,” Zahur answered. “But I do not come for myself today.” 

Khufu chuckled, placing his hands on his knees. “Who have you come for, then?” 

“My father,” Zahur admitted. “And my mother. And my two sisters. They’re starving, your majesty. Our crops, we can’t maintain them. And the livestock goes to your palace, so we don’t have that, either. I come to you asking for a little bit of reprieve.” 

“Reprieve, eh?” Khufu murmured, cocking his head. Zahur saw his eyes light up, and he spun on his heels. “Reprieve, the boy asks for.” 

The pharaoh hurried past his throne, entering a small nearby room. He returned in seconds, palming a large, red, glistening fruit with a black stem jutting out of the top. Walking back up to Zahur, he extended his arm, showing him the fruit.  

“Here,” Khufu offered. “Here’s your reprieve.” 

Zahur carefully took it, turning it over in his hands. “What is it, your majesty?” 

“It’s called an apple,” Khufu explained. “I obtained some when I was away traveling. This one is special, though. This will be the last food you or your family will ever need.” 

“Thank you.” Zahur’s eyes watered. “Thank you so much. How do I use it to feed the others?” 

Khufu’s mouth split into a wide grin. “All you have to do is eat it. The whole thing, especially the seeds. They’re the most important part. The rest will follow in three days’ time.” 

Zahur’s eyes drifted back down to the apple. “Just eat it?” 

“That’s right, boy,” Khufu laughed. “Simple, isn’t it?” 

“It is, your majesty,” replied Zahur. 

He found himself staring at the chamber next to Khufu’s throne, and the pharaoh noticed, too. 

“Are you curious about what I’m building?” Khufu asked the boy. 

Zahur nodded. 

The pharaoh snapped his fingers at the guards. “Leave us. I’ll give our new friend here a tour.” 

Bowing their heads, the guards backed away, exiting the throne room. 

Khufu gestured to the chamber, and Zahur followed him up the stairs as the pharaoh spoke. “I don’t suppose you’ve attended any of my scientific lectures, have you?” 

Zahur shook his head. “My family is too religious. They don’t want me learning something that’s different than what they believe.” 

Chuckling, Khufu slapped his hand on one of the chamber’s supporting columns. “That’s funny. Religion and science are far more intertwined than most people believe. Your parents included.” 

Taking a bite from the apple, Zahur savored its sweet crispness, finally swallowing the flesh and juice. “What do you mean?” 

“Well, we worship our gods, do we not?” asked Khufu, pointing at the hieroglyphics on the walls. “Osiris and Horus, Bastet and Seth. They watch us from an unreachable domain, governing the way the world works. That’s what you’ve been told, isn’t it?” 

Zahur took another bite, nodding. 

“Well, I believe these beings exist, but not as our rulers,” Khufu explained. “I believe that, just as a river splits when presented with an obstacle, so too does our one world become many as it sees shifts in power. Maybe in one world, you eat this apple. In another, you don’t. These worlds stretch out, infinitely, becoming less and less probable as time passes in each realm.” 

Frowning, Zahur slowed his chewing, trying to wrap his head around what Khufu was saying. “Where are these worlds? In the sky? Below the sands?” 

“In whispers,” Khufu responded, his eyes glistening passionately now. “In soft breezes. If we sail along the surface of a river, does it not resist us, keeping us separate from the world of the fish? Yet, if we gently submerge our hand, it welcomes us freely. I think that this world, the one you and I live in, we’re like boats, floating atop the streams, unaware that an entirely different kind of domain is waiting for us on the other side of the surface.” 

“Is that what that is?” Zahur queried, looking at the chamber. “A way off the boat? A way below the river?” 

“Not quite,” admitted Khufu. “See, I’m not much interested in exploring these worlds. I want one world – the world where our ancestors have evolved into powerful entities. Entities we see glimpses of in our religion: Osiris and Horus, Bastet and Seth. I call it The Ascension.” 

Zahur gulped down another apple bite, swallowing a smooth seed this time. “What do you want from The Ascension?” 

“I want their essence, their energy. They’ve lived all this time, sustained by a force that our world does not possess. An eternal force.” Khufu offered Zahur wild grin. “The reality your family worships, it has a gift for me. And I’m going to take it.” 

________________ 

After finishing his apple, Zahur trekked back beyond the pharaoh’s city, joining his family in the Western village. He relayed Khufu’s message to them, and they rejoiced, excited for the blessing that was to come. As the sun set, Zahur laid down on his cot, smiling in satisfaction. 

His stomach rumbled, and a sharp pain poked at his side. Frowning, he shifted, and the pain vanished. In its place came a faint, gnawing sound, like a tree branch bending in the wind. He looked around, trying to identify the source of the sound, but it quickly faded, and he closed his eyes, returning to a world of darkness. 

________________ 

Day 2. 

The gnawing sound returned to Zahur’s ears as he awoke the next morning. He reached up, sticking his finger in one canal, but he heard no change in pitch or volume. It was almost as if it was coming from . . . inside him. 

Then, it stopped. 

Zahur took a deep breath, calming himself, and grabbed some buckets, venturing to the river to collect water for the morning. He kicked off his sandals, allowing his toes to squish into the wet sand as he slipped down the banks. The cool stream washed across his feet, ridding it of the earthy residue, and he sighed in satisfaction. The hot sun and cold river created a beautiful contrast, and he found it difficult not to savor the moment.  

Something tickled his feet, and he glanced down at the water, expecting some small fish. He saw nothing, however, even as the sensation grew stronger. Cocking his head curiously, he crouched, his hand hovering about the river’s surface. As he dipped his fingers into the water, he couldn’t help but to think about Lord Khufu’s analogy about the barrier between worlds.  

This is no fantasy, Zahur chastised himself. This is just a river. We can see a river, feel it, drink from it.  

He plunged his hand down into the riverbed, feeling around for whatever it was that tickled his feet. Rather than feeling fish or flora, his fingertips rubbed against thin strands on the ends of his toes. Confused, he backed out of the river, examining his feet. Sure enough, little brown roots, hardly thicker than strands of hair, grew from beneath his toenails, soggy from the river water. He grasped at the roots protruding from his big right toe and pulled, yanking them from his skin. A little blood leaked from beneath the toenail, dribbling towards the clear water and staining it red. 

Zahur felt something brush against the back of his throat, and he gagged, dropping to his hands and knees to retch against . . . whatever it was. Nothing came out of his mouth, though, and he reached two fingers down into his throat, feeling for the object within. He felt something flat and pinched it, pulling forward. The object resisted, but he pulled harder, and with a crisp snap it came free, exiting his mouth. Hand shaking, he extended his arm, looking at the object.  

A leaf. Just a flat, green leaf. 

But then, what was the leaf connected to, that he had to pull so hard to free it? 

________________ 

Zahur’s sandals slapped against sand and stone, propelling him across the city and towards Lord Khufu’s palace. He struggled to breathe, his joints stiff and aching, his skin crawling as if covered in a layer of insects. As he made his way into the palace courtyard, he found it devoid of guards, and a cacophony of loud voices sounded from Khufu’s throne room. Crouching, Zahur pressed himself against the wall, sneaking to the edge of the doorway separating him from the commotion. 

“Lord Khufu, you cannot do this!” a stern voice insisted. 

Zahur peeked around the corner, absorbing the scene. A dozen men and women in brown, hooded robes surrounded Khufu, who sat in his throne, a look of annoyance stretched across his face. Against the walls stood six guards, weapons at the ready in case the situation grew out of hand. 

“Disciples of Bastet,” he boomed, addressing the hooded figures, “you know that I have always honored our . . . tenuous relationship. You provide spiritual hope to the people, while I feed and protect them. But you cannot simply invade my home and make demands of me.” 

“Please, Lord Khufu,” begged one of the women in the front of the group. “We’ve received a vision from Bastet, all of us. She’s sent a Call, showing us our future. Your future.” 

“My future, eh?” The pharaoh pondered on her words for a moment. “Bastet can do that?” 

“You’re right, your majesty,” interjected another disciple. “There are other worlds, other planes of existence, such the one where Bastet lives. But these worlds are connected by circumstance, not time, and to connect to these other worlds is to become disconnected from the flow of life. Do you understand?” 

“I do,” nodded Khufu. “That’s why I must join them in power.” 

“But power comes at a cost,” the woman near the front spoke again. “We are not prepared to breach the veil between worlds. We are not advanced enough. If you penetrate that barrier, the effects will be catastrophic. Not just for you, but for our entire world.” 

“Not advanced enough?” scoffed Khufu. “Now, you’ve insulted me. I’ve built this country up with my wit and ingenuity. You think this is where I’ll finally fail?” 

She opened her mouth to respond, but he waved his hand dismissively. “Begone. You are all banned from my palace. I have nothing more to say.” 

The disciples erupted in protest, but the guards quickly approached with their spears, herding them from the throne room and into the courtyard, somehow overlooking Zahur in the process. The boy waited for the group to vanish past the palm trees, then hurried into the throne room, walking up to where Khufu sat. The pharaoh leaned forward, an amused expression on his face. 

“Ah, the boy with the hungry family. How are you feeling today?” 

“Not well,” admitted Zahur. “Something is happening to me. My body is changing. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.” 

“Well, I’ve done what you’ve asked,” Khufu snapped, standing up. “I’ve provided you with a means for feeding your family. Do you trust me, your pharaoh?” 

Zahur nodded sheepishly. “Yes, I do.” 

“Then go back home,” commanded Khufu. “Drink plenty of water, and soak up as much sunlight as you can before it grows dark. Everything will make sense soon.” 

________________ 

Day 3. 

Zahur awoke choking, his throat dry and filled with tickling objects. He attempted to reach up, to free his throat, but his arms were so stiff, each movement crackled like dry twigs, sending sharp pain rippling through his body. Still, he persisted, shoving his hand down his throat until he grasped something thin and stiff. Jerking his arm forward, he ripped it out, unspooling it from within as dozens of objects tickled him and forced him to gag. He extended his shaking arm, revealing a long stem covered in flat, green leaves. The broken end of the stem dripped blood, as if the object had been connected to flesh rather than foliage.  

What is happening to me?  

He tried to stand, but found his legs and torso were just as stiff as his arms, cracking and snapping throughout his body. Struggling past the pain, he slowly rose, carefully balancing himself on the ground. His fingers brushed against his bare legs, and he recoiled as they encountered a tangled mess. Glancing down, he saw thousands of tiny, thick roots protruding from the pores of his legs, giving him an almost beastly appearance.  

“Lord Khufu,” he struggled to whisper, his voice raspy and dry. “He’ll know what to do.” 

________________ 

By the time Zahur reached the palace, the pain of his snapping bones had become almost second nature. His stomach, however, rumbled aggressively, seeming to push something back up into his throat. He was less concerned about the pain and more worried about suffocating before he could get help.  

As he ran up to the entrance, he heard a distant rumble, like a thunderstorm. Lifting his head, he saw thick, grey clouds emerging from the roof of the palace, crawling up into the sky. As he watched, a green light flickered from behind the clouds, flashing periodically like lightning. The clouds slowly spread out from the palace, casting a shadow over Zahur.  

Zahur burst into the building, stumbling across the courtyard. As he paused to catch his breath, his eyes drifted to the mass of trees and bushes in the center of the open space. Draped over the branches of one palm tree hung two of Khufu’s guards, their throats cut and dribbling blood onto the leaves below. Zahur covered his mouth to stop himself from screaming and dropped to a crouch, silently moving past the dead men and towards the throne room.  

Flickering green lights emanated from the doorway, and Zahur froze for a second before peeking around the corner. He saw Khufu operating a series of levers and cranks on his interdimensional chamber, the golden branches above it alive with green lightning. Nearby stood the remaining guards, seemingly unaware of the fate of their comrades as they stared, fascinated, at the strange device. 

Zahur moved to get their attention, but the dozen brown-cloaked Disciples of Bastet suddenly emerged from the shadowy corners of the throne room, producing daggers and slitting the guards’ throats from behind. As the men collapsed around Khufu, the pharaoh straightened up, glancing over his shoulder.  

“Came here to usurp me, did you?” he growled. “Cowards. Traitors.” 

“This isn’t about political power,” retorted one of the disciples. “You’ve violated the veil separating us from forces and entities that we are not prepared to handle.” 

“Just look outside!” cried another disciple. “Even the sky is already changing.” 

“I have worked too hard to stop now,” Khufu said, assuming a fighting stance. “You will not rob me of my earnings.” 

Two of the disciples rushed him, daggers raised, but he caught the first one by the wrist, twisting to throw them over his shoulder while simultaneously sweeping his leg to send the other sprawling. Still holding the first disciple’s arm, he planted his foot on it, snapping it backwards. The disciple screamed, dropping their knife, and Khufu caught it with his other hand, spinning to slash the throat of the second disciple as they tried to regain their balance. 

“There’s more than two of you, isn’t there?” he snarled, brandishing the bloody blade even as the pair of would-be attackers collapsed on the stone steps. “Are you bound by your faith or not?” 

Zahur cowered in the corner of the room as six more disciples leapt into the fray, stabbing at Khufu. He dodged and parried expertly, manipulating the attacks to avoid even the shallowest scratch. Instead, his stolen dagger found six soft spots, and before Zahur could register the details of the battle, six more blood-soaked bodies piled at the pharaoh’s feet. 

The remaining four disciples backed away in horror, carefully circling Khufu, daggers at the ready. Two of the disciples nodded at each other, sheathing their weapons, and faced the pharaoh, their eyes flickering yellow. To Zahur’s shock, they disappeared in a whisper, bodies and cloaks replaced by large, pointy-eared jungle cats who stood almost as tall as Zahur himself. The cats snarled, thick muscles rippling under tan, spotted fur as they glared at their prey. 

“Two of the Blessed have come to kill me, too?” Khufu gasped in faux surprise. “I’m honored.” 

As the jungle cats pounced, the remaining two dagger-wielding disciples flanked the pharaoh, closing in for the kill. The first cat reached Khufu, clamping its jaws around his forearm, but he immediately spun in a circle, using the animal’s momentum to free himself and hurl its body into the two human disciples. Blood gushed from where the bite had skinned his arm, but he merely grimaced and switched dagger hands, turning to face the second cat as the humans behind him fell.  

Hissing, the other jungle cat extended its long claws, scaling up Khufu’s legs and stomach, leaving deep gashes with each step. Khufu responded by stabbing it repeatedly in the back as it reached for his throat. The animal’s jaws widened, eyes fixated on his jugular, but he managed to bring the blade down one last time, burying it into the creature’s left eye. The cat yowled, collapsing to the floor and shifting back into an unconscious human form. Blood leaked from the fallen disciple’s eye socket and pooled around their head in a murky halo.  

In the time it took to stave off the attempted assassination, one of the knife-wielding disciples managed to recover, hurling themselves at Khufu. Their knife buried in his back, and the pharaoh cried out in pain and anger, pulling his body away from the cloaked intruder. He tumbled across the throne room, twisting on his feet only to throw his dagger at the attacker’s chest. It spun through the air, burying into their heart, and they fell back, eyes wide. Khufu reached behind himself, clutching the handle of the knife still in his back, and jerked hard, removing it. Blood leaked from a dozen different wounds as he shakily wielded the new blade, keeping it between himself and the last two disciples. 

“You don’t know what you’ve done,” pleaded the human disciple as the cat disciple circled Khufu. “You don’t know what this will do.” 

“Yes, I do,” the pharaoh scoffed. “I will become a new god.” 

The jungle cat leapt at his back as the dagger-wielding disciple closed in from the other side. He crouched at the last second, burying his knife in the cat’s stomach and flipping it over his shoulder in time to deflect a dagger strike with the animal’s body. The final disciple’s eyes widened in horror as they realized who they’d stabbed, but before they could react further, Khufu rammed his knife under their chin, glaring at them as they choked on their own blood. 

“You won’t be around to see it, though,” he whispered to the disciple, finally dropping him to the floor. 

As the second Blessed disciple returned to their human form, Khufu fell to his hands and knees, gasping at the stone while blood poured from his wounds. His arms trembled for a moment before he collapsed completely, the sand around him quickly staining red. 

“Your majesty!” Zahur cried, rushing to help the pharaoh, pushing past even the excruciating crackle of his own bones. He placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, leaning over. “Are you okay?” 

“I . . . need . . . the chamber,” moaned Khufu, one trembling hand pointing at the device next to his throne, silhouetted in green energy. 

“I’ll help you,” Zahur promised, grabbing the pharaoh’s arm. “But, I need you to reverse whatever you did to me with the apple. I’m scared, your majesty. I don’t want to die, either.” 

“Okay,” Khufu weakly agreed. “Get me to the chamber.” 

Zahur helped the man to his feet, and the pharaoh leaned on the boy, the pair stumbling up to the chamber. As Khufu reached the outer columns, he gripped them, pulling himself the rest of the way inside.  

“Watch out,” he warned the boy, reaching for a lever on the inside. “Keep your distance.” 

Stepping back, Zahur watched the pharaoh flip the lever, and the green energy grew more intense, circling the chamber now. Zahur covered his eyes to protect them from the blinding light as it shifted from green to white, and without warning, a thunderclap filled the room, the shockwave knocking the boy off his feet. He fell to the ground, a steady rumbling sending vibrations through his bones.  

From behind, Zahur heard footsteps approaching, but as he struggled to stand, he vomited, expelling three small apples from deep within his stomach. The boy stared at them in horror as they rolled across the stone, realizing what he’d been turned into. A cold hand touched his shoulder, and he turned around to see Khufu. 

At least, he thought it was Khufu. 

Gone was the pharaoh’s bronzed skin; his wide, expressive eyes; his full features. In their place stood a man as pale as moonlight, his face now sharp and angular, his thin lips red and his beady eyes black. He shifted his stance, and Zahur saw the once-mortal wounds fading away, shimmering in white light.  

“You did it,” he whispered. “You’ve become a god, Lord Khufu.” 

“My name means little in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t it?” the man asked, looking down at his hands. “I don’t even look like myself anymore. No, I need a new name. Call me . . . Black Pharaoh. The last ruler Egypt will ever need.” 

“Please, Black Pharaoh,” Zahur begged. “Help me. You promised.” 

The man calmly walked over to his golden chamber as it powered down, ignoring the boy. Reaching down, he ripped apart one of the columns, green sparks showering him. Grunting, he continued to dismantle the device, destroying it piece by piece. 

“No one else,” he murmured to himself. “There will be no one else like me.” 

“Black Pharaoh . . .” Zahur felt more apples inside him, tickling his gag reflex. “I don’t want to die.” 

“You won’t die, boy,” Black Pharaoh finally responded, his tone dismissive. “You will simply change. Will you be human? No, that you will no longer be. Instead, you’ll be what you came to me for: A reprieve, through which your family will be fed for eternity.” 

A thick tree branch suddenly burst from Zahur’s shoulder, breaking bones and splitting skin. Blood ran down the bark as Zahur cried out in pain and panic, and he saw leaves and fruit dangling from the end of the branch.  

“Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to reverse what’s been done,” Black Pharaoh continued. “But think of it this way: Together, you and I will be the only two humans to ever achieve immortality. Isn’t it beautiful?” 

Zahur turned and ran, his joints aching, his head spinning, weighed down by the parasite growing inside of him. He made it through the body-riddled courtyard, stumbling through the palace door before collapsing outside. Another branch emerged, crawling out of his spine this time, and he looked upwards with tears in his eyes. Where blue sky and yellow sun once glowed, he saw nothing now but grey clouds backlit by green lightning. 

“I don’t think we’re sailing above the river of worlds after all,” he commented as Black Pharaoh walked up next to him, peering at the sky. Calmness overtook him as shadow washed across sand; he hardly noticed the third branch as it burst from his neck, showering the ground in blood. “No, it seems more like we’re already somewhere below the river. Somewhere in . . . The Underneath.” 

Phase III — Annelisse

Annelisse, Pt. 1 – Alley Cat 

The stars formed pinpoints of light over Paris, muted by the moon’s overwhelming pale glow. Just beyond rows of small businesses towered the Sacred Heart Basilica, perpetually honoring the Holy Eucharist and casting its blessing down over the city. At this time of night, traffic was at a minimum, and one could hear faint music drifting from the windows of nearby homes. 

Then, a crash. 

Inside a small antique shop, a short, chubby man in a black turtleneck swore, placing the rusty alarm clock he’d knocked to the floor back on its shelf. He stumbled through the darkness until he found the shop counter, lugging a plastic box along the way. Unscrewing a cap atop the container, he upended it, dumping its liquid contents across the wooden countertop. Turning, he repeated the action on the nearby aisles of dusty paraphernalia, nodding with satisfaction once the stream reduced itself to a dribble. Dropping the container, he retrieved a book of matches, reaching for the nearest one. 

Suddenly, a flash of white light filled the dark shop, and he spun around, peering into the shadows. 

“Who’s there?” he called out in French. 

A quiet zip whispered back at him, as if someone had pulled a spin top. 

Then, two yellow eyes appeared, staring at him from barely thirty centimeters above the floor. The eyes moved away from him, revealing their attachment to the sleek body of a black cat. The cat turned away from the man, who angrily pocketed the matches. 

“You!” he growled, and the cat darted back into the blackness. 

The man took chase, snatching up a nearby baseball bat perched against an aisle. He saw the cat brush open the front door, which jingled slightly as a bell near the ceiling activated. Following suit, he shouldered past the barrier of glass and metal, waving the baseball bat with red-faced fury. 

“Get back here!” he hissed, his feet pounding against the sidewalk. 

Rounding a corner into an alleyway, the cat slipped out of the man’s sight, and he picked up his pace, almost colliding with a dumpster near the entrance. He steadied himself, tightening his grip on the bat, and stalked through the alley, keeping an eye out. Something moved beneath a pile of abandoned clothes, and he leapt forward, bringing the bat down onto it repeatedly. Kicking away the shirts and pants, he saw the crushed remains of a large rat. 

A glass bottle rolled across the asphalt near his foot, and he turned quickly to see the black cat darting away. He hurled the bat at the animal, but it narrowly missed, ricocheting off the ground and clanging into the brick wall of the alleyway. The man swore against, sprinting through the alley after the cat as the disregarded weapon gently rolled to a stop behind him. 

At the other end of the journey sat a single streetlamp, whose yellow light glistened off the cat’s black fur as it approached the structure. The man in the turtleneck saw the creature’s escape as imminent, and his fear enabled a burst of speed that brought him quickly to the other end of the alley. As he exited the space between the buildings, he turned to run after the cat, but stopped. 

Less than a meter away, at the outdoor table of a closed café, sat a bald, dark-skinned man in a tan trench coat. The man in the turtleneck froze as the man in the trench coat lowered a newspaper he was reading by streetlight. At his feet sat the yellow-eyed cat, who purred smugly. 

“Monsieur Dufort, yes?” the man in the trench coat asked in French. “I’ve been expecting your arrival. Please, have a seat.” 

Dufort glanced up and down the empty street, raising an eyebrow at the stranger. “And who are you?” 

The man in the trench coat sighed, leaning back in his chair. “I’m Inspector Monet. Yes, like the painter, and no, I don’t also paint. Will you sit now, please?” 

Jabbing his finger down at the cat, Dufort asked, “do you know what this is?” 

“I do,” Inspector Monet replied. “Now, sit.” 

This time, he pulled back his coat, revealing a snub-nosed revolver secured in a brown leather shoulder holster. 

Dufort’s face went ashen white, and he stepped forward, sliding into the chair opposite Monet’s. He twirled his thumbs around each other nervously, waiting for Monet to speak. Instead, the Inspector stared at the man in the turtleneck for a moment, a smile twitching at the edges of his lips. 

“You own a bakery near here, don’t you?” Inspector Monet finally asked. 

Dufort looked down at the black cat, who blankly returned his stare with its yellow eyes. Returning his attention to the Inspector, he responded, “Yes, that’s right.” 

“Interesting,” Inspector Monet responded, retrieving a small notebook from his inner coat pocket. He flipped it open, turning to the second page. “And you’re friends with Monsieur Blanchet, the toy shop owner down the street?” 

Dufort wiped away the sweat forming at his brow. “I am.” 

“Hmm.” Inspector Monet nodded. “Such a shame that their shop burned to the ground last month. A tragic accident.” 

“Yes,” Dufort agreed, his voice shaky. “Tragic.” 

“A lot of tragedy going around lately amongst friends with failing businesses, eh?” Monet commented, turning to the next page of his notebook. “Madame Fontaine’s pet boutique . . . Monsieur Adrien’s used cell phone store . . . if I were a betting man, I’d be keeping an eye on the Bassett family’s antique shop.” 

He snapped his notebook shut sharply, locking eyes with Dufort. “Do you think I’m a betting man?” 

“I . . . I’m not sure what you want me to say,” Dufort whispered. 

Inspector Monet reached up with his other hand, slapping a pair of handcuffs on the café table. “Honestly, I’m just curious whether your friends will use the generous insurance payouts you guaranteed them to ensure your release from jail.” 

Dufort frowned. “May I speak now, Inspector?” 

Monet offered a welcoming gesture. “Of course.” 

“I don’t know what you think is going on, or what kind of crazy conspiracies you’ve invented,” the shop owner huffed, “but this is all absolute conjecture. If you wanted to bring real charges to my face, you’d come with other police, and with evidence.” 

Rising from his chair, Inspector Monet towered over Dufort, casting an icy shadow in the streetlamp. “You think I need help detaining you?” 

Dufort cowered in his chair. “No. Sorry, sir.” 

The Inspector placed his hands on his hips. “As for the ‘theories,’ they aren’t mine. They are the work of a talented young detective who I’ve come to trust very much. Do you know Annelisse?” 

Hanging his head in defeat, Dufort responded, “Yes. We’ve spoken before.” 

“Then all we need is evidence,” Monet continued. “Something like . . . a photograph of you literally committing the crime?” 

Dufort kept his head down. “Right.” 

Turning to the cat at his feet, Inspector Monet nodded. “Well?” 

A quiet zip whispered back at him, as if someone had pulled a spin top. 

The cat arched its back, bones popping out of sockets as they stretched unnaturally. Yellow eyes flickered, illuminated by something more than just a streetlamp, as the creature grew taller, thicker. Its paws turned to hands, its snout into a nose. Black fur retreated into flesh, and yellow cloth grew in its place, covering the tan skin underneath. The entire process took no more than a second, leaving behind a teenage girl in a yellow sun dress, her brown hair short and choppy. 

The girl reached up to her neck, around which hung a small digital camera. She removed the camera, handing it to Inspector Monet, who rifled through the images on the small screen on the back of the device. While he worked, the girl’s eyes flicked over to Dufort, still as yellow as they were in the body of a cat. She offered a smirk, winking at the man in the turtleneck. 

“Ah! There it is,” Monet exclaimed, tapping the digital camera’s screen. “Monsieur Dufort’s much-needed evidence. Thank you kindly, Annelisse.” 

The girl’s smile grew wider at the compliment. “Pas de problème, Inspector.” 

________________ 

The next morning, the sun rose over the cobblestone city streets, burning in Annelisse’s eyes as she navigated the tight spaces between local businesses. Around her fluttered a world of smells: Sweetness from the Boisseau flower shop, umami from the Archambeau butcher store, and even the remnants of fresh bread from the closing Dufort bakery. She frowned at the locked doors, briefly saddened that her well-intentioned investigation had blighted such a positive culinary center of the local area.  

“Annelisse!” someone called out, ripping her attention from the bakery. 

Turning around, she saw Nathan Dubois approaching. The young, small-time journalist fumbled for a handheld voice recorder, smiling sheepishly as it almost slipped from between his fingers. 

“Annelisse, word’s gotten out about Dufort,” he announced, bridging the gap between them. “Can I take a statement about how you came to the conclusion–” 

“Nathan,” Annelisse chastised, “you know I can’t make press statements. That’s the Inspector’s job.” 

“Yes, but . . .” Nathan paused awkwardly before continuing. “You did all the work, right? And you practically live in Inspector Monet’s attic. Surely you can speak on his behalf.” 

Annelisse frowned at the comment. “Good-bye, Nathan.” 

She turned away from the man’s protests, slipping into a nearby alley. 

He was right, of course. Inspector Monet was quite competent on his own, but ever since he found Annelisse on his doorstep as a baby, he’d grown both protective of her as a paternal figure and reliant on her as a crime-fighter. They’d had their differences, and she often found herself restlessly roaming the city for nights on end, but she always navigated her way back to his attic. Back to the place she called home. 

Still, she couldn’t help but to wonder where she really came from. 

Hunching over, Annelisse allowed herself to slip into a twilight state, her body shifting almost reflexively. Black fur sprouted from her skin as her clothes evaporated, and she contorted herself toward the ground as she shrunk, her muscles and bones realigning. Within a second, she stood in the alley as a black cat, the only sound during the transformation a quiet zip, like a pulled spin top. 

In her other body, the world changed dramatically. 

Annelisse had read once that a cat’s sense of smell was fourteen times stronger than a human’s; having experienced both, she could attest that it felt exponentially more potent than that. The alley flared to life around her, bombarding her with far more than just flowers and meat and bread. She could practically taste the salt of Nathan’s sweat; the bitterness of the dirt on the cobblestone; the chilled sterility of the fresh glass window in a nearby shop. Living creatures in the alley, from mice to cockroaches, exploded into view, aided by her night-vision eyes. 

It was one thing to not know her parents or her past; when it came to her strange ability, Annelisse was at a total loss for answers. She had no clue what allowed her to shapeshift, or why a black cat was her only available form. More baffling to both Monet and herself was the way her clothes and any small objects on her person transformed with her, completely dismissing the laws of biology and physics alike.  

Still, she found her . . . condition . . . to be quite advantageous, despite not fully understanding it. As a sleuth, she relished in the fact that her senses amplified her detective skills. As someone often in dangerous situations, the light and nimble cat body allowed her to slip away from harm undetected. And as someone who wanted the best for everyone . . . 

Well, there was The Call. 

Even as she mused on it, The Call came for her, whispering down the sidewalks like a gust of wind, causing her whiskers to twitch. Something pulled at the pit of her stomach, as if she’d been dropped from a great height, and she felt her eyes dilate, black pupils overwhelming yellow irises. The sound of her own heartbeat filled her ears, and she felt pulled, drawn North. Gothic towers and blurred monochrome churches filled her mind, and the name Monet reached her tongue. Not her adopted father, though; the famous Monet, who painted the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Yet, this was not Paris’s Notre-Dame. It was someone else’s. 

Annelisse felt The Call fading, so she shifted back into her human form, shaking her head to clear it of the images. 

“Rouen,” she murmured to herself, turning to leave the alley. “Someone needs help in Rouen.” 


Annelisse, Pt. 2 – Another Woman 

The train from Paris hissed as it stopped, the passenger doors opening. Shielding her eyes from the sun, Annelisse stepped out of the vehicle, taking her first deep breath of Rouen air. She twisted her body, stretching to relieve her stiff muscles after her two-hour trip. People swarmed around her like ants in a hive, busily transitioning between phases of their day, unable to stop and appreciate the ornate architecture around them. 

Wandering into the center of the town, Annelisse smiled, marveling at the complex wooden lattices and colorful masonry. Above the rest of the buildings towered the Notre-Dame Cathedral, its façade wrapped in a nest of concrete spines that gave the church a hostile appearance. 

Annelisse tore her attention away from the towers stretching into the sky, focusing instead on the details of the cobblestone roads. She sought out a space alone to transform, to find the person whom The Call claimed needed her help. Crossing the closest street, she squeezed into a dark alley between two homes, adjusting the miniature backpack strapped to her torso. When she was confident in her isolation, she shifted into her black cat form, taking a moment to absorb the bombardment of new sensory information. 

There it is. 

The Call wasted no time reaching out to her, and her stomach fluttered as she chased its trail, her tiny paws padding across grass and stone. She hardly watched her path, allowing her instincts to guide her, only changing her trajectory to avoid being squashed by passing traffic. She ran at least a half-mile before she found herself standing in front of a small, nondescript house, The Call surrounding the building with a pulsating aura that only Annelisse could see. 

Crouching out of sight behind a parked car, Annelisse shifted back into her human form. She approached the front door of the house, curious if anyone was even home. Shrugging, she lifted her hand and knocked. 

“Bonjour!” she called cheerfully, attempting to appear as nonthreatening as possible. 

No response, for a moment. 

Then, the curtain of the closest window pulled back just slightly, and Annelisse saw a single eye staring at her through the shadow-filled gap in the cloth. She waved cheerfully at the inhabitant, then pointed at the front door. 

“May we talk for a moment?” 

The curtain returned to its place, and after a few seconds, Annelisse heard the door unlock. The wooden barrier swung back, and a middle-aged, grey-haired woman poked her head out, examining Annelisse.  

“Do I know you?” the woman asked. 

Annelisse shook her head. “Not yet. My name is Annelisse, and I’m here to help.” 

The woman raised an eyebrow. “Help with what?” 

“Well, I’m not sure yet,” Annelisse admitted. “See, I’m a detective from Paris–” 

“Oh!” the woman interrupted, recognition flashing across her face. “You found the culprit for the recent Paris shop fires! I was reading about you in the paper today. You’ve made quite a name for yourself.” 

Annelisse shrugged sheepishly. “I try.” 

“I’ve heard some interesting rumors about you, too,” the woman added, cocking her head with a slight smile. 

“Well, that’s why I’m here,” Annelisse replied. “The interesting things you’ve heard about me are the same things that led me to your front door.” 

The woman’s smile softened, and Annelisse could see her eyes watering a little. 

“Please, come in,” the woman whispered, wiping her reddening face. “There is something I could use your help with.” 

Annelisse nodded empathetically, following the woman into her house. 

If it wasn’t for my trust in The Call, this would be incredibly unwise, she thought amusedly. 

“Would you like some tea?” the woman asked, and Annelisse shook her head. 

No reason to push my luck, the girl added silently to herself. 

“Oh, I never gave you my name,” the woman said, pouring herself a cup of tea. “I’m Harriett. My husband is Hugo. He’s probably the reason you came today. He’s missing, and I think he’s seeing another woman.” 

Annelisse’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry to hear that. How long has he been gone?” 

“Three days,” Harriett responded, her voice cracking a little. 

“And what makes you think he’s having an affair?” Annelisse pressed. 

Harriett averted her eyes. “I found . . . love letters. In his work desk. To and from someone named Cadence. She has very pretty handwriting.” 

“Where do you think he went?” asked Annelisse. 

“He hadn’t left the house much recently,” admitted Harriett. “I think he may have left to meet her for the first time, and now he isn’t coming back. But if that’s the case, I just want to know for sure. I need to know what happened to my Hugo.” 

Annelisse pondered for a moment before speaking again. “Do you still have the letters?” 

Harriett shook her head. “I went back for them later to confront him, and they were gone, along with him.” 

Annelisse sighed. “Do you remember anything they said? Anything about how they met, or where they might be going?” 

Wiping tears from her eyes, Harriett nodded. “One of his letters said he couldn’t wait to see her ‘fly again.’ Whatever that means.” 

Reaching into her backpack, Annelisse retrieved a small electronic tablet. She loaded a maps application onto the screen, zooming out to display the entire town. 

Not a lot of airport options near us, she thought to herself. She could be a pilot, but if he’s been staying close to home lately . . . 

“Show me where he works,” she requested, handing Harriett the tablet. 

“Well,” Harriett said, “he’s an accountant, so he’s been working from home more recently. But when he used to leave the house for work, his office was at the industrial equipment supply facility on the West side of town. I don’t know what the office was like, but sometimes he’d come home smelling like popcorn.” 

She pointed at the map, and Annelisse took the tablet back, zooming in and scrolling around the area. 

“That’s a start,” Annelisse finally responded. “I’m going to head that way. But I’ll be back as soon as I can with any updates in the case.” 

The girl stood to leave, but Harriett leapt to her feet, wrapping her in a tight hug. 

“Thank you,” Harriett whispered in Annelisse’s ear. “This means the world to me.” 

Annelisse patted the woman’s arm. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.” 

________________ 

The sun had transitioned from stark yellow to deep pink as it began to set, casting shadows across West Rouen. Annelisse walked up to a tall chain-link fence, peering through the other side at a series of tall, red-and-yellow-striped tents. The faint smell of popcorn filled the air, and a small sign indicated what the place used to be before it closed down: Cirque De Noel. 

“’See her fly again,’” murmured Annelisse, glancing over her shoulder at Hugo’s office building in the visible distance. “Not airplanes. Trapeze.” 

Glancing at her feet, she saw a small hole in the bottom of the fence, likely the work of a stray raccoon. Smiling to herself, she shifted into her cat form, scurrying under the fence and onto the circus grounds. Her heightened senses and night vision allowed her to navigate the maze of tents with ease and precision, and she padded atop brown grass, examining the decrepit buildings. 

Suddenly, a small squeak reached her pointed ears, which twitched in the sound’s direction. Annelisse turned her small, furry head, lowering her feline body as close to the ground as she could to avoid detection. Another squeak, and this time she identified the source from within the second tent on the left. Not an organic squeak; no, this was mechanical in nature. 

Annelisse crept into the tent, sticking to the shadows as she prowled past old cages and rusted animal training tools. A third squeak directed her to a flap that separated the performer’s area from the main stage, and she approached it cautiously. Behind her, she felt the sun’s warmth fade as it inched below the horizon. At this point, only a sliver of light remained. 

A fourth squeak, and Annelisse poked her head through the tent flap. 

A middle-aged man in glasses, presumably Hugo, sat no more than five meters away from her, perched atop the metal bleachers used for stadium viewing. His head tilted up slightly, a blank smile on his face, as he watched a figure perform on the trapeze ropes above the main stage. Annelisse followed his gaze to see a young, pale woman with flaming red hair, expertly flying across the tent on the ropes in a baby-blue leotard. As she moved, the waning dusk seemed to almost warp around her, like heat waves above asphalt on a hot summer day. The distortion drew Annelisse in, and it took her a moment to pull herself away from the performance. 

Instead, she weaved beneath the bleachers, working her way past metal girders until she reached the space behind Hugo. Transforming back into her human body, she reached up, tugging on Hugo’s shirt.  

“Hey,” she whispered. “Hugo? Your wife sent me.” 

Hugo completely ignored her, still transfixed on the trapeze performer. The soft squeak of the swinging ropes filled the dark, empty, abandoned circus tent, and a chill traveled up Annelisse’s spine. 

Something’s wrong here, she thought.  

As the realization occurred to her, she saw the red-haired woman leap from the ropes, falling toward Hugo. Rather than dropping quickly, though, she glided, as if held aloft by a parachute. When her feet touched the metal bleachers, Annelisse hardly felt the vibrations of her landing. Unease filled the girl’s chest, and she sunk into the shadows, peering through the cracks of the bleachers. 

“How did I do, my love?” the woman asked, smiling at Hugo. 

“It was wonderful, Cadence,” Hugo responded, as if murmuring in his sleep. “As beautiful as the first day I saw you.” 

“Oh, Hugo,” Cadence sighed, stroking his face. “Of all the men and women who’ve come here, you’re easily the most romantic. I must be sure to keep you around for a while.” 

Her smile widened, turning sinister, and long, sharp fangs sprouted from her gums, blood trickling down from the protrusions. She blinked, and her eyes shifted from dull green to bright yellow, not too unlike Annelisse’s own eyes when she was in her cat form. Leaning forward, Cadence clutched Hugo’s shoulders, holding him steady as she sank her teeth into his neck. 

Covering her mouth to mask her gasp of surprise, Annelisse stepped further back, trying to avoid seeing too much. Still, she could make out droplets of blood leaking beneath the bleachers as Cadence sloppily lapped up Hugo’s life force. After what felt like an eternity, the feeding ceased, and Cadence pulled away, wiping the blood from her mouth as her eyes and teeth reverted to normal. 

“Did you enjoy that?” she asked the man, who was considerably paler than before. 

“It was wonderful, Cadence,” Hugo weakly replied. “As beautiful as the first day I saw you.” 

“That’s what I like to–” Cadence suddenly stopped, tilting her head. She raised her face, sniffing the air, a low growl emanating from deep within her throat. “Someone else is here.” 

Hugo sleepily looked around. “Where?” 

Annelisse tried to keep her whimpers of fear bottled up, tears welling in her eyes. 

“I’m not sure, my love,” Cadence responded. “I think it’s . . .” 

She glanced between the cracks in the bleachers, and her eyes connected with Annelisse’s. “Ah, there you are.” 

Spinning on her heels, Annelisse exploded from beneath the bleachers, sprinting toward the tent’s exit, a rushing wind alerting her to Candace’s chase. Ahead, the last vestiges of sunlight faded away, and the darkness of night finally fell on Annelisse as she stumbled onto the circus grounds, running for her life. 


Annelisse, Pt. 3 – Second Opinion

Annelisse’s shoes dug into the grass as she ran, weaving through the circus tents. Her pulse pounded in her ears, and she felt her extremities shiver from the rush of adrenaline.  

From the rush of fear. 

In her panic, she must have made a wrong turn, because as she rounded the next corner, she found herself in a sea of tents, rather than the exit she expected. She slid to a stop, sweat dripping down her face as she looked back and forth, wide-eyed. Somewhere nearby, she heard Cadence’s soft snicker; such a quiet sound, but full of malice and smugness in equal parts. 

Thinking quickly, Annelisse shifted into her cat form, using her enhanced senses to reorient herself. As she turned in the correct direction, a rush of air sounded whispered above her, and she looked up to see Cadence hurtling toward her, yellow eyes hungry and fanged mouth open wide. 

“So, you have your own secrets,” Cadence hissed gleefully. 

Annelisse darted away, her four legs and lighter frame carrying her more quickly from the attack than her human form could. Cadence slammed into the ground, calling at the young detective as she ran beyond the tents. 

“No matter! You can’t escape me, girl!” 

Scurrying under the hole in the chain-link fence, Annelisse leapt onto the sidewalk, sticking to the shadows as much as possible. She ran forward, unsure of where to go, or what to do, completely aware of how exposed to Cadence this side of Rouen left her. Trees lined either side of the otherwise empty road, stretching endlessly ahead, offering her no reprieve from the creature chasing her. Still, she pushed on, daring not to look back.  

After a few minutes, her muscles burning in her tiny legs, she glanced at the path behind her. To her surprise, she saw no red hair, no yellow eyes, no bloody fangs. As far as she could tell, she’d been left alone. Her run slowed to a trot, and she focused her animal instincts on her surroundings.  

Nothing. No one. 

Opting not to stay in the open for a surprise attack, Annelisse turned her attention to the nearest tree, clawing her way up the bark and perching amongst the uppermost covered branches. There, she waited in cat form, her golf-ball-sized heart pumping inside her chest like runaway car with a flat tire. The wind caressed the leaves around her, causing her sensitive ears to twitch, but she heard no footsteps, no voices. 

Until . . . 

“No hiding, either,” Cadence playfully chastised in her ear. 

Annelisse yowled, leaping down from the tree, transitioning to her human form at the last second to catch herself. Looking up, she saw Cadence leering down through the branches, fangs bared. 

How did she get up behind me without me noticing? Annelisse silently marveled.  

Nonetheless, she turned away from the creature, this time aiming for a bridge in the distance that hovered over a nearby river. 

They can’t cross running water, right? thought Annelisse.  

She pumped her human legs against the asphalt, angling toward the bridge as Cadence cackled behind her. Cold breath on the back of her neck caused her to panic, and as she reached the bridge, she hurled herself forward, tumbling onto the concrete expanse. Behind her, she heard Cadence gasp, and she turned to see the red-haired woman backing away, yellow eyes wide and frightened. Cadence glanced over the edge of the bridge at the rushing river and shivered, crossing her arms over her chest. 

“Holy shit,” Annelisse whispered, sighing in relief. “I can’t believe that worked.” 

Cadence regained her composure, smirking at the girl. “You think this will stop me? Maybe the thing inside my heart hates water, that’s true. But just like with any other psychological block, it can be overcome with a little bit of willpower.” 

With that, she took a step forward, planting it firmly onto the bridge. 

Shifting back into her cat form, Annelisse turned away, darting across the rest of the bridge while Cadence slowly wormed her way toward her. The roads became cobblestone, and she soon found herself surrounded by tall, glass businesses. She returned to her human body, calling for help as she stumbled through the streets. 

Much to her dismay, no one answered. 

In the distance, Annelisse heard Cadence laugh maniacally, her voice drifting into the girl’s ears as if part of the moonlight. 

Wiping away her tears of terror, Annelisse made her way through downtown Rouen, seeking any assistance, but no one appeared in the shadows of the buildings. Turning another corner, she saw the Notre-Dame Cathedral stretching for the stars, its spiny exterior much more welcoming to Annelisse in her current predicament. She made a beeline for the building, staggering up the front steps and pulling the heavy door open. As she turned to close it, she saw Cadence hurtling toward her, hissing like a snake. Annelisse slammed the door shut, and the creature collided with the wooden barrier, banging against it. 

“Uh . . . can I help you?” a man’s voice called out, echoing throughout the dimly-lit church. 

Annelisse turned to see an older, grey-haired man descending from the pulpit, making his way down the pew aisles at a slow, steady space. Cadence banged against the door again, and he tilted his head, glancing behind Annelisse. 

“I take it that’s not a friend?” 

Annelisse shook her head, shuddering.  

“That’s okay,” he said softly, pausing a few meters from the girl. “I don’t think that thing can come inside anyway.” 

The banging outside stopped, followed by a low, soft chuckle that quickly faded away. 

Sighing, Annelisse sat in the closest pew. “Because this place is holy?” 

The man laughed, his toothy smile infectious. “I’d like to think it is, but no, that’s not why. This town’s ancestors built this cathedral years ago using a rare metal that repels creatures like the one you’re hiding from in here.” 

Movement drew Annelisse’s attention to a window above her head, and she looked up to see Cadence clinging to the glass and staring inside, nothing more than a dark silhouette. 

“Don’t worry,” the man reassured her. “She’s just trying to scare you into leaving.” 

“Well, that’s not going to work,” Annelisse mumbled. 

The man stepped closer, extending his hand. “I’m Father Marquis. You can call me Mark.” 

She took his hand, shaking it. “I’m Annelisse. You can call me that.” 

Looking back up at Cadence, Annelisse continued, “What is she, anyway? She said something about a ‘thing’ in her heart.” 

Mark glanced down at Annelisse, a glimmer in his eye. “You already know, don’t you? This is what people fear when they talk about vampires.” 

Cadence backed away from the window, vanishing into the night. A knot in Annelisse’s chest loosened a little, and she felt her shoulders relaxed. 

“Of course,” the priest added, “not everything you read is accurate. I may be a man of God, but these creatures are natural, rather than spiritual. Predatory, rare nature, but nature nonetheless.” 

“What do you mean?” asked Annelisse. 

“Well . . .” Mark slid into a pew a few rows down from Annelisse. “The way it’s been explained to me, vampires come from one man: Vlad the Impaler. Are you familiar with him?” 

Annelisse nodded. “He was a political and military leader in the fifteenth century, right? Not a great man, though, I understand.” 

“You’re right on both counts,” Mark acknowledged. “What most don’t know about him is that, during an exploratory campaign in the Seychelles wilderness, he contracted a rare disease that edited his DNA, much in the way that scientists are able to achieve with CRISPR today.” 

“What kind of disease?” asked Annelisse. 

Mark shrugged. “We’ll never know. As far as we’re aware, he killed his comrades and incinerated that part of the wilderness after he realized the power he’d obtained. I’m sure he didn’t want others to compete with him.” 

“That figures,” Annelisse said. “What kind of power does he have?” 

“Oh, it varies depending on the legends,” admitted the priest. “Most agree that he’s been gifted with strength, flight, and immortality. Some say he can control pests, like rats and insects. And, of course, he’s most widely known for his ability to turn others into beings similar to him, making him the de facto king of vampires.” 

“Similar?” inquired Annelisse. “Not the same?” 

“No, no,” he responded. “Not the same. They’re much weaker, their bodies and minds slaves to a parasite that embeds itself in and around their heart. Certain metals irritate them, running water scares them, sunlight burns them. They can only feed on blood, not transform others in the same was as Vlad. And, of course, if the parasite is killed, the entire host dies with it. Hence, the old ‘wooden stake through the heart’ myth.” 

Annelisse pondered for a moment before speaking. “So it’s true, then. Destroy the heart, destroy the vampire.” 

Mark smiled. “Exactly.” 

“But what about her victims?” she pressed. “I saw her perform some sort of . . . acrobatics routine. It lulled a man into a trance, or something.” 

“Hmm . . .” Mark paused, thinking to himself. “Well, not all vampires change in the same way. It could be a talent unique to her. Though I imagine that if she perished, her victims would be freed.” 

Realization struck Annelisse, and her eyes widened. “Wait. Harriett doesn’t know. His wife is in danger!” 

She moved to stand up, but Mark waved her down. “I wouldn’t go back out tonight. Not while your nemesis lives. Wait here until daylight, where you can hunt her and kill her in her sleep.” 

Annelisse returned her attention to the priest. “How do you know all this, anyway?” 

Mark smiled again. “Pardon my language, but I’ve seen some shit.” 

Sighing, Annelisse laid down on the pew, closing her eyes. Cadence’s yellow eyes flashed into her thoughts, and she frowned. 

“There’s more troubling you, isn’t there?” Mark prodded. 

She puffed her cheeks, blowing air out of her mouth in a thin stream. “It’s more about me, than anything else.” 

Mark nodded gently. “Care to elaborate?” 

“I have a . . .” Annelisse hesitated before continuing. “A skill. I can change my body, like Cadence. I’m different, but . . .” 

“But you’re worried that you’re still too similar,” Mark finished, understanding in his voice. 

Annelisse squeezed her closed eyelids tighter together. “Yeah.”  

“Well, consider the book of Exodus,” he said. “We’re asked to put no other god before the God of the Israelites. I don’t think that’s a declaration of vanity, though, nor a symbolic message. I believe there are, in fact, other deities, other gods, that interact with humanity. I think Exodus is a warning of their potential danger.” 

Opening her eyes, Annelisse shot the priest a worried glance, and he chuckled. 

“Now, I’m not saying they’re all bad. It’s just that, sometimes, you don’t know where your gifts or your curses come from. These vampires? They may be borne of science, but they do the work of a devil, a dark entity. But just because you are extraordinary, too, it doesn’t mean that your actions have to be similarly evil.” 

“Personal choice,” Annelisse muttered, smiling a little. “It’s all about personal choice.” 

The last vestiges of adrenaline faded in her body, and she soon drifted to sleep. 


Annelisse, Pt. 4 – Until Death 

A warm ray of sunshine poured through the cathedral windows, tickling Annelisse’s nose until she awoke. She blinked, her eyes adjusting to an overstimulation of light, taking a moment to realize that she’d shifted into her cat form while she slept. Morphing back into her human body, she stood and looked around the chapel, but Father Marquis had disappeared. Annelisse stretched her stiff muscles, turning to exit the building and step onto the streets of Rouen. 

It didn’t take long for her to reach Harriett’s house, and she knocked on it, the rapping of her knuckles producing a strangely hollow sound beyond the barrier. She glanced over at the curtains, expecting Harriett to peek through the veil once more, but to her surprise, the door almost immediately unlatched from the other side, swinging open. On the other side stood the woman who’d hired Annelisse, smiling affectionately down at her. 

“Annelisse!” Harriett exclaimed, pulling her into a hug. “After you didn’t come back yesterday, I got worried. Are you okay?” 

“I’m fine,” Annelisse responded, pushing the woman into her house and shutting the door behind them. “Have you heard from your husband, or from anyone else?” 

Harriett blinked in surprise, then shook her head. “I’ve been alone since you left. Did you find Hugo?” 

Annelisse lowered her gaze. “I did. He’s in trouble.” 

A teakettle began to whistle in the kitchen, and Harriett clucked her tongue, glancing in the sound’s direction. “Can you be a dear and take the kettle off the stove, please?” 

Nodding, Annelisse hurried into the kitchen, using a towel to protect herself from the hot kettle as she removed it from the stove eye. As she leaned over to turn off the stove, she said, “You may not believe me, Harriett, but your husband’s actions were involuntary. He’s currently under the thrall of a supernatural creature.” 

“A supernatural creature?” Harriett called back, beyond Annelisse’s sight. “What does that mean?” 

Some of the hot water from the kettle dribbled onto the counter, and Annelisse turned to grab a towel. “Cadence . . . well . . . she’s a vampire, apparently. A vampire who can mesmerize her victims. And now that she knows I was trying to reach Hugo, she might come for you . . .” 

Her voice trailed off as she spied mud-caked loafers next to the back door that led into the kitchen. The mud was fresh, but the shoes were far too big for Harriett’s feet.  

“We need to leave before Cadence comes,” she muttered, her eyes drifting to a wooden knife block on the counter. 

One of the kitchen knives was missing. 

“You didn’t mention how wonderful she was,” Harriet whispered into Annelisse’s ear from behind. “As beautiful as the first day I saw her.” 

Annelisse sensed Harriett rear her arm back, and she dove to the floor, shifting into her cat form. Behind her, something whistled through the air, striking a nearby kitchen cabinet with a sharp crack. Skidding across the kitchen floor, Annelisse turned to see Harriett wielding a brass fire poker, its pointed tip gleaming.  

“Cadence says you’re a pest,” Harriett said, her eyes wide and glazed over. 

Footsteps sounded behind Annelisse, and she darted out of the way just as Hugo appeared, swinging a kitchen knife down into the floor. 

“Pests must be crushed,” he murmured. 

Shifting back into her human form, Annelisse held up her hands in surrender. “I know you aren’t doing this of your own volition. Please, remember who you are. What I came here to do.” 

Harriett swung again, and Annelisse jumped, shifting to cat form mid-air and running along the woman’s offending arm. Using her claws to maintain her balance, she scurried up to Harriett’s shoulder and leapt off, shifting back into human form as she fell. Her feet slammed into the floor behind her attacker, and she rushed out of the kitchen, into the living room. 

Not far away, she heard the entranced couple storm toward her, and she rushed for the front door, but it was bolted shut. Before she could figure out how to unlatch it, Hugo’s knife whistled through the air, barely missing her skull as it embedded into the door. She spun around, pulse pounding, and ran directly at the man, who lunged at her. At the last moment, Annelisse shifted into cat form, sprinting between Hugo’s legs and back into the kitchen. 

Aiming her tiny, furry face at the back door, Annelisse transformed back to her human form, reaching out to open the barrier. It wouldn’t budge. Behind her, Harriett’s feet slapped against the linoleum, and Annelisse leaned to the side, narrowly avoiding a jab from the fire poker. She shifted again, deftly leaping onto the kitchen counters. Harriett smacked the poker repeatedly across the counter, attempting and failing over and over to strike the girl in the cat body.  

Leaping for the wooden knife block on the counter, Annelisse wrapped her tiny mouth around the handle of the blade, morphing back into her human form with the knife still between her teeth. As Harriett and Hugo approached, she plucked the weapon from her mouth and wielded it in front of her, still crouched on the counter. 

“Please stay back,” she pleaded to the couple. “I don’t want to hurt you.” 

“But Cadence wants us to hurt you,” they droned in unison. “We must hurt you.” 

Suddenly, the back door burst open, and Inspector Monet rushed inside, snub-nosed revolver drawn and ready. “Get on the ground! Now!” 

Annelisse looked at her adopted father, shaking her head. “Don’t kill them! They’re under someone else’s control!” 

Monet cocked his head. “Pardon?” 

Harriett swung her poker, smacking the gun from the inspector’s hand. He cried out in pain and took a step back, barely avoiding her second swing. Annelisse hurled herself onto Harriett’s back, slashing the back of her hand with the knife and causing her to drop her makeshift weapon. Inspector Monet rushed forward, punching Harriett in the face. She fell backwards, unconscious, and Annelisse released herself at the last moment, tumbling across the floor. 

Before the girl could get her bearings, she felt strong hands lift her into the air, and cold, sharp steel pressed against her throat. She glanced down to see Hugo’s fingers firmly grasping the kitchen knife. The man turned to Monet, who was reaching for his revolver. 

“Stop!” Hugo demanded. “Or I’ll slice her neck.” 

“Sure you will,” Annelisse retorted, shifting into her cat form. 

Hugo lost his grip as her mass and shape dramatically altered in his arms, and he fumbled with her small, furry body. Exposing her claws, she scaled his chest, scratching at his face. He howled, dropping his knife and reaching up to protect his eyes. Annelisse heard Monet approaching, and she deftly leapt away, leaving the inspector room to shoulder-check Hugo across the kitchen. The man crashed against the cabinets, and ceramic plates crashed down onto his body, dazing him. 

Moving quickly, Inspector Monet produced a pair of handcuffs, clasping one end to Hugo’s right wrist and the other to Harriett’s left wrist, the chain between them looping behind a nearby wall-mounted radiator. Satisfied, he turned to Annelisse, hands on his hips disapprovingly. 

“Why didn’t you call me?” he demanded. 

Annelisse smiled sheepishly. “I was kind of busy. It’s been a crazy twenty-four hours. How did you know I was in trouble?” 

Inspector Monet tapped his temple. “You have your Call. Let’s just say I have a sixth sense of my own. You set it off far too often, young lady.” 

“Sorry, Inspector,” she apologized. “Thank you for your help.” 

He sighed, looking around the war-torn house. “What on earth is going on here?” 

“Uh . . .” Annelisse chuckled nervously. “Would you believe me if I said vampires?” 

Monet shook his head in incredulity. “After raising you, I’ll believe anything.” 

Glancing back at the front door, Annelisse added, “it’s only one vampire, at least. She lives down at the old circus. The name’s Cadence. Until we do something about her, she’s going to cast a dark shadow over this family, and probably the rest of Rouen.” 

“’Something,’ eh?” the inspector commented, looking at his adopted daughter. “Like what?” 

Annelisse shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t want to kill anyone. But I don’t know what it will take to capture her, or to convince her to release Harriett and Hugo.” 

“Well,” Monet grunted, picking up Harriett’s fire poker and Hugo’s kitchen knife, “there’s only one way to find out, right?” 

“True,” Annelisse responded, smiling. “We’ll solve this one together.” 

Inspector Monet put his hand on Annelisse’s back, guiding her to the front door. “Let’s go catch a vampire, I guess.” 


Annelisse, Pt. 5 – High Stakes 

Inspector Monet deftly worked his wire cutters on the chain-link fence separating them from Cirque De Noel, sweat dripping down his brow. Annelisse patiently waited for him to finish, resisting the urge to taunt him by slipping through the barrier in her cat form. After a few minutes, he peeled back the fence, gesturing for Annelisse to go first. 

“Such a gentleman,” Annelisse mocked playfully, stepping through. He silently followed, revolver at the ready. 

They moved through the circus grounds cautiously, wary of danger. The sun shone down on them, though, offering Annelisse the comfort that Cadence would pose them little harm at this time of day. They approached the tent that Annelisse had found Cadence and Hugo in previously, and she pointed it out, whispering. 

“There. I don’t know if she’s still there, but she was before.” 

They brushed open the curtain, sneaking inside the massive canopy. As they walked across old straw, the ground whispered beneath them, threatening to spill its secrets. Unease filled Annelisse’s stomach, and she furrowed her brow. 

“Something is wrong,” she said. “I don’t know if–” 

The earth collapsed beneath Monet’s legs, and he plummeted downwards into some kind of pit. At the last second, he grasped for the edge of the pit, clinging to it by his fingertips. Annelisse rushed to the hole, looking over the side. Below his legs stood sharp, rusty animal cage bars, mounted as a makeshift spike trap.  

“Here,” she reassured him, “I’ll get you out.” 

She grabbed his wrists, working him up out of the hole as he found better footing. His weight pulled her down, though, and she gritted her teeth, straining against the force. 

“Maybe try fewer cookies in the future,” she chastised. 

Monet shot her a stern look as he lifted himself the rest of the way out of the pit, collapsing into the straw near the edge. He covered his face, taking deep, shaky breaths. 

“What the fuck was that for?” he finally squeaked. 

Annelisse returned her attention to the spike pit. “Deterrence. Something to protect her in the daytime while she sleeps.” 

“Oh, great,” the inspector moaned, climbing to his feet. “Then where there’s one, there will be more.” 

Annelisse nodded. “It’s very likely.” 

She shifted into her cat form, guiding the way through the tent, using her animal senses to avoid Cadence’s other surprises. They stepped past toothy bear traps, wired World-War-Two-era claymores, and even some hydraulic-powered needles filled with some kind of venom. As they approached the entrance to the main stage, Annelisse shifted back to her human form, addressing the inspector. 

“Right this way. All we have to do is–” 

Something shifted beneath her foot, and a tommy gun dropped from the ceiling, suspended by a maze of wires and cables. A spring-loaded clamp tightened around the trigger guard, and the gun opened fire, its recoil steadied by the ropes. Monet lunged at Annelisse, knocking her over as a hailstorm of bullets rushed over their heads. The projectiles bit into the dirt, kicking up little clouds that choked Annelisse. Rolling onto his back, Monet returned fire with his revolver, shattering the tommy gun’s body and disabling the attack. 

“I think I’ve had about enough of this,” he grumbled angrily, jumping to his feet and storming toward the entrance to the main stage.  

“Inspector, wait!” Annelisse cried, chasing after him.  

Together, they entered the main stage area, and as they crossed the threshold, Annelisse felt some kind of thin wire break at her shins. A loud whoosh filled the air, and a series of heavy, black curtains descended from the canopy, slamming to the ground all around them. Within seconds, the dimly-lit tent fell into pitch blackness, the curtains absorbing all sunlight. 

Then, on the other side of the tent, two yellow eyes appeared, glaring at them through the gloom.  

“You dare return, girl?” Cadence hissed. “You don’t learn lessons well.” 

“On the contrary,” Annelisse retorted, “I learn something new every day.” 

Reaching into her backpack, she retrieved an emergency flare, igniting it. The tent filled with burning red light, exposing the red-haired vampire. Monet leveled his revolver, squeezing the trigger three times into Cadence’s midsection. She staggered back with each shot, almost losing her balance on the third one. Monet lowered his weapon, and Cadence looked at her torso, laughing. 

“Bullets?” she cackled. “You’re going to kill me with–” 

She suddenly doubled over, retching. Blood sprayed from her mouth, and she dropped to her knees, quivering. When she looked back up, Annelisse saw red tears leaking from her eyes, sliding down her face in glistening lines. She returned to her feet, but the movement was shaky, no longer fluid and whispering like before. 

“What did you do to me?” she weakly demanded. 

“A little birdie told me you don’t like the Notre-Dame Cathedral because of how they built it,” Annelisse explained. “Seems like bullets coated in a little metal from the foundations go a lot further than anyone thought.” 

“We’re not here to kill you,” Inspector Monet calmly added, reloading his gun. “We’re just here to detain you so you can’t hurt anyone else.” 

“I’d rather die,” Cadence growled, her voice stronger now. Annelisse squinted, registering the bullets pushing themselves from the vampire’s skin and falling to the floor. “Actually, I’d rather kill you.” 

With that, she faded backwards, into the darkness beyond the flare’s light.  

Annelisse stepped forward, swinging the flare around, while Monet kept his revolver steady, his head on a swivel. From the darkness, Cadence hummed an off-kilter melody, the broken tune of an old nursery rhyme echoing around them. 

A green mouse that ran in the grass, 

I caught it by its tail. I showed it to those men. 

The men said: Dip it in oil, dip it in water. 

It will become a snail, nice and warm. 

I put it in a draw; it told me, “It’s too dark.” 

I put it in my hat; it told me “It’s too warm.” 

Suddenly, she emerged from the shadows behind Inspector Monet, barely a meter from his neck. He seemed to sense her approach, dropping to the ground in a surprisingly graceful tumble, coming to a stop beyond Cadence’s reach. 

Annelisse rushed at the vampire, leaping into the air and morphing into her cat form. She landed on Cadence’s arm, digging her claws into the redhead’s skin. Cadence hissed, trying to shake her off, but Annelisse shifted back to human form, using the momentum and sudden weight increase to throw the creature over her shoulder and onto her back. Before Cadence could recover, Annelisse produced Monet’s backup handcuffs, clasping one end around the vampire’s right wrist and the other end around the nearby bleacher supports. 

“Are you serious?” Cadence chuckled, looking over at her handcuffed arm while Monet returned to Annelisse’s side, leveling his revolver at the vampire. “You think this little thing will hold me back?” 

She pulled against the chain, but it remained intact, the handcuff clasp grinding against the bleachers. 

“Something tells me you haven’t been handcuffed in a while,” commented Monet. “They aren’t as fragile as they used to be.” 

“Well,” Cadence spat, “neither am I.” 

Without another word, she jerked her arm against the handcuffs at an upward angle with enough force to complete sever her right hand from her body. 

Annelisse and Monet stepped back in horror as the vampire stood to her feet, blood spurting from the stump at her wrist. Behind her, her hand melted into the dirt, leaving behind nothing but reddened bones. She looked at her bleeding arm, and something began to sprout from within. Five pink, wormlike tendrils appeared as the wound itself sealed, creating a perfect circle of half-meter-long tentacles where her hand used to be. 

“Hmm,” Cadence muttered, looking at her replacement hand. “I admit, I thought it would just grow back normally.” 

She adjusted her stance, spreading her legs and leaning forward like a sprinter. “Still, this will work.” 

Her body blurred, and she darted forward at a speed Annelisse could barely track with her eyes. Dust kicked up from behind her as she aimed herself at Inspector Monet, wrapping her tentacle-hand around his neck. He screamed, clawing at the air as she dragged him away from Annelisse, back into the darkness.  

“Dad!” Annelisse cried, running after them, but they had disappeared. 

At the edges of the shadows, though, the air seemed warped, as if rising up from hot asphalt. 

“Annelisse,” she heard Monet call back, his voice a weak whisper. “Help me, Annelisse.” 

She looked around, trying to pinpoint the direction of his voice. The sound seemed to float through the air, shifting around her like a feather caught in a tornado. Squinting, she peered into the darkness, considering shifting into her cat form to locate the man.  

Then, she heard the distinct cock of a revolver hammer. 

Realization struck her, and she rolled to the left as far as she could as a gunshot rang out, the muzzle flash illuminating Inspector Monet’s glassy eyes. The bullet whizzed over Annelisse’s head, and as her tumble concluded, she shrunk into her cat body, darting toward Monet in a zig-zag formation to avoid being struck. He attempted nonetheless, and bullets slammed into the dirt around her, sending puffs of dust into the air like tiny land mines. 

As his cylinder clicked over to emptiness, she changed back, rushing to disarm him. He seemed prepared for it, though, pivoting on his heels to dodge her movement and backhanding her across the face. The blow dazed her, and she lost her footing, collapsing to the ground. As she tried to regain her bearings, she heard him reload his weapon, his footsteps soft as they approached her. 

“Time to send you to heaven,” he said, his voice monotone. “It’ll be wonderful. As beautiful as the first day I saw her.” 

Annelisse squeezed her eyes shut, expecting the sharp pain of a bullet and the cold darkness of death. 

Instead . . . nothing. 

Surprised, she rolled onto her back, her eyes widening as she saw Monet standing over her, shivering, the revolver to his temple. His eyes, still glassy, leaked tears now. His lips trembled as he spoke, his words disjointed like a malfunctioning robot. 

“Heaven . . . wonderful . . . beautiful . . .” 

Suddenly, his eyes locked with Annelisse’s, and he spoke three words. 

“Live for love.” 

Then, he pulled the trigger. 

“Dad!” Annelisse screamed, her voice cracking as he fell, lifeless, to the ground. “No!” 

“Wow,” Cadence commented from behind the weeping girl. “No one’s resisted my trance before. That took balls.” 

Fury flushed Annelisse’s face red, and she dove at Monet’s body, snatching up his revolver and swiveling to face the vampire. Cadence darted away, but Annelisse shifted to her cat form, taking chase. Her augmented hearing, smell, and vision honed in on the creature, and her four legs carried her through the tent like a force of nature. Despite Cadence’s enhanced speed, Annelisse caught up quickly, leaping at her back.  

Before she could reach Cadence, however, the vampire turned sharply, ensnaring Annelisse in her tentacled hand. The tendrils snaked around Annelisse’s cat body, circling her neck and torso. 

“I’ve had enough of your disrespect,” Cadence hissed through her fangs, her yellow eyes practically headlights now. The air began to shimmer around her like a heat wave. “Join me. It’ll be wonderful. As beautiful as the–” 

Annelisse shifted back to her human form, the sudden change in mass and size breaking her free from Cadence’s grasp. Before the vampire could react, Annelisse leveled Monet’s revolver, squeezing the five remaining rounds into her chest. Cadence staggered back, clutching her torso as blood began leaking from her eyes, ears, nose and mouth. She tried to speak, but only a gurgle emerged, and she fell onto her back, writhing in the dirt. 

Stepping over Cadence’s prone body, Annelisse reached into her backpack, rummaging around. 

“’Live for love,’” she quoted, speaking loudly over Cadence’s moans. “That’s what he chose as his last words. It speaks to who he was as a man. The caliber of his kindness.” 

She produced Harriett’s fire poker, examining the brass object. Below her, she noticed the bullets had begun to push themselves back out of Cadence’s wounds. 

“You took that kindness from the world,” Annelisse continued. “And yes, I’ll live for love.” 

She raised the poker over her head. 

“But maybe I’ll start tomorrow.” 

Bringing her arms downward, she shoved the tip of the poker into Cadence’s heart. 

Cadence screeched, her shrill voice tingling Annelisse’s ears. The air rippled around her as her skin liquified, revealing organs and muscle fibers. Those decayed, too, rapidly falling away as the vampire’s fluids pooled around her body like a burst water balloon. Within seconds, all that remained of the creature who once plagued Rouen was a blood-soaked skeleton. 

________________ 

The next morning, Annelisse called in an anonymous tip for the local police to pick up her adopted father’s body, wary of what they’d say about Cadence’s. Strangely, though, the remains of the vampire disappeared by the time the officers arrived. The only clue left behind was a small porcelain figurine of St. Maria Goretti, the patron saint of forgiveness. 

While they shipped the inspector back to Paris, Annelisse visited Harriett and Hugo. They were horrified by the actions they’d performed under Cadence’s spell, but Annelisse reassured them that it was out of their control. If anything, they were bonded even more now after such a harrowing experience. 

Afterwards, Annelisse returned to Paris, locking herself away in the attic of Monet’s house to mourn. There she stayed for a day, then two, then a week, time stretching towards a month before she heard a knock at her door. 

“Go away,” she croaked, wiping away her tears. “I’m busy.” 

“It’s me,” Nathan Dubois responded on the other side of the door. “Can I please come in? No interview. No story. I just want to talk, as friends.” 

Sighing, Annelisse walked across the attic, turning the knob to let the young man in. He stepped inside, smiling awkwardly. 

“I’m so sorry about the inspector,” he said. “The department said he willed his home and savings account to you?” 

Annelisse nodded, sniffling. 

Nathan pulled her close, wrapping her into a hug. “What will you do now?” 

She paused before responding, considering his question. 

“All my father ever wanted to do was to help people. To protect people. That’s what he died doing: Protecting me. To not follow in his footsteps would be to spit on his memory.” 

“Who will you help?” Nathan asked, finally releasing the girl. “Where will you go?” 

“I . . . I don’t know,” Annelisse admitted. “This is the only place I’ve ever known. But I feel like I’ve done all I can do here.” 

She backed away from Nathan, looking down at herself. “But maybe I can find out.” 

Leaning over, Annelisse shifted into her cat form, attuning her senses. 

Instantly, she felt The Call reach out to her. Her whiskers twitched, her stomach flipped, and her eyes dilated as images and sensations filled her head. She felt intense cold prickle her skin, melting into a wet, dreary trickle, like heavy rainfall. A hollow echo filled her ears, as if she was sinking into an aquatic abyss. She saw a bridge . . . a clock tower . . . a flash of green light . . . a trio of grinning skeletons in tattered clothes. As The Call faded, she morphed back into her human body, locking eyes with Nathan. 

“London. Someone needs help in London.” 

Phase II — The Underneath

The Underneath, Pt. 1 – Gaps 

“Natiq!” Adeena yelled, chasing after her younger brother. “Slow down!” 

The headstrong eight-year-old sprinted through the playground, dodging the other children as if it were his profession. Adeena tried her best to keep up, but the playground’s boisterous other occupants invaded her space, slowing her down. She stumbled, almost collapsing to the ground, and straightened her hijab, growling in frustration. 

“Natiq!” she cried. “I’m going to tell mom if you don’t get over here!” 

As usual, her brother ignored her, smiling mischievously as he reached the playground’s epicenter, a jungle gym twisted up in layers of climbing bars and tube slides and swinging bridges. He glanced over his shoulder at Adeena before crawling into the bottom of one of the biggest slides, a bright green plastic tunnel at least three times Adeena’s height. 

“No, that’s the wrong way!” Adeena chided, rushing to the bottom of the slide, but Natiq had already disappeared, scaling the interior like a spider in its web. 

Sighing, the teenager leaned into the slide, calling out. “Natiq, answer me.” 

The only response was her own voice echoing back at her. 

“Natiq?” she repeated, worry cracking her voice. 

Silence surrounded her, stifling her, as if the sounds of the other children had faded away. Concerned now, she pulled herself into the slide, applying pressure with her hands and feet to scale the angled tunnel. As she climbed, the silence grew more pronounced, and she wondered if the plastic had some sort of sound-muffling feature. 

Sunlight washed across her face as she reached the top of the slide, climbing out onto the top of the jungle gym. She stood up, brushing off her clothes, and looked around, but she saw neither Natiq nor any of the other children who were there just a moment ago. Moreover, the playground itself seemed older now, more decrepit, as if it had aged a decade in seconds. Overhead, the once-sunny sky was now covered in grey clouds, and Adeena thought she saw a dim, green light flicker like lightning within them. 

Adeena knelt down, running her finger across rust-covered metal. “Natiq, please answer me.” 

A gentle breeze moaned across the playground, and Adeena wrapped her arms around herself. 

Is this a dream? she thought. Am I going crazy? 

Across the street, amongst the rows of houses, Adeena saw curtains gently part, and a bony, bleach-white face with thin, bright-red lips peered through the window. When they saw her looking back, they retreated back into the house, and the curtain fell still. 

“Hey!” Adeena called. “Can you help me?” 

She hurried down the steps of the jungle gym, sprinting across the grass and onto the sidewalk. As she prepared to cross the street, movement caught her eye, and she turned to see a large, hulking figure approaching her. She paused, hesitant, and turned toward the newcomer. 

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, moving in their direction. “Have you seen a little boy come by here in the last thirty seconds or so? He answers to Natiq. My mom asked me to watch him, but he got away from-” 

She stopped mid-sentence as the figure drew close enough to make out its features, gasping. 

Lumbering toward her towered an eight-foot, humanoid rat, its features cartoonish, its matted fur covered in oversized street clothes. At first glance, Adeena thought it might be a person in some kind of elaborate costume, but its movements were too stiff, too erratic, like a wind-up toy in its death throes. Some sunlight filtered through the clouds, glistening off of what appeared to be a metal skeleton hidden beneath holes in the rat’s fur. 

“You are not registered, citizen,” the rat-creature boomed, its voice hollow and robotic, its mouth unmoving. “Please provide identification.” 

“Identification?” Adeena squeaked. “I’m sorry, I’m not old enough to have a license.” 

The creature moved closer, extending its furry hand. “Identification is mandatory.” 

“I don’t have any!” Adeena yelled, backing away. “What is going on?” 

“Registering unknown citizen as hostile,” the rat-creature said, its eyes lighting up red. “Deploying countermeasures.” 

It extended its arms, and metal claws protruded from its fingertips. “Please remain calm during your execution.” 

“My what?” cried Adeena. 

The rat-creature raised one arm, preparing to strike, and Adeena crossed her arms in front of her face, heart pounding in her chest. Suddenly, a small boy ran between them, producing two plastic cards. “She’s with me!” 

The creature paused, its red eyes flickering back to black. It leaned forward, examining the two cards. “Scanning. Recognized. One Ahab Van de Berg and one Marsha Van de Berg.” 

Without saying another word, it returned to full height, retracting its claws, and turned around, creakily walking away. Adeena and the boy silently watched its silhouette grow smaller and smaller until it was beyond their sight. Once it was gone, the boy – Ahab, Adeena presumed – turned to her, revealing an angular, bleach-white face with thin, bright-red lips. 

“You have to be careful around Annies,” Ahab said, returning the two identification cards to a satchel slung across his shoulder. “They’re quite volatile.” 

“Are you okay?” Adeena asked. “Your face . . .” 

Ahab laughed. “Right, you just got here. Come with me.  I have a lot to explain.” 

“I can’t go with you,” Adeena replied. “I have to find my brother.” 

“Why do you think I’m here?” Ahab said. “Your brother has been taken. I’m trying to rescue him, and others like him.” 

Adeena’s eyes widened. “Taken? By who? What is this place?” 

Ahab looked around. “Come on, let’s get off the streets. We don’t want to draw attention to you.” 

“To me? Adeena scoffed. 

Ahab motioned toward a space between two of the nearby houses. “I know you don’t know me, but I need you to trust me. We aren’t safe here.” 

He’s just a kid, Adeena thought. Probably no older than Natiq. What harm can he do? 

Nodding, she followed him into the alley, and they began weaving a path between the houses, cutting through yards and hopping over gates. 

“Where am I?” she asked as they walked. “I know I’m not in the same place as before. But everything looks sort of similar.” 

“You’re in what my people call The Underneath,” Ahab explained. “Our scientists theorize that your world, The Overhead, and ours were once the same. One single world. But something changed a long, long time ago, and we became two halves of a whole. Connected, similar, but different.” 

“Wait, so you’re saying that I’m not on Earth anymore?” Adeena asked, incredulous. 

Ahab chuckled. “Well, it’s still Earth. It’s just a version of what Earth could have been, compared to your world. And your world is what Earth could have been, compared to ours. Two origin points, divided into different evolutionary paths.” 

“Different? How?” Adeena inquired. 

“Well, the plant and animal life here is harsher, more predatory. Weather patterns are more consistent; we don’t get many deviations from this mild, overcast sky. Humans have developed differently. You pointed out my face? That’s what everyone here looks like.” 

“Oh.” Adeena averted her gaze. “I’m sorry for being rude.” 

“It’s okay. This is all new to you. Moreover, we Underneath humans have different developmental stages biologically. In your world, in The Overhead, children are born with very little intelligence or maturity or emotional stability. It takes both time and care for those qualities to come to fruition.” 

“What’s it like here?” Adeena asked. 

“Well, in The Underneath, maturity and intelligence are inverted. The younger we are, the better our memory retention, our social skills, our scientific aptitudes. In my world, we’re all born as tiny scientists, slowly awaiting our mental deterioration as we reach adolescence. It’s kind of like your world’s Alzheimer’s, but we spent the first decade and a half of our life painfully aware of its inevitability. As a result, all scientific discoveries and technological developments are achieved solely by children under the age of fifteen, leading to some major differences in modern technology between The Overhead and The Underneath.” 

“Wow.” Adeena stopped walking for a moment, trying to process what Ahab was saying. “So what happens to the adults?” 

Ahab glanced at her. “Nothing good. Most become bitter, delusional, sadistic. Because of the adult-to-child ratio, and due to Underneath adults’ brutal methods, they have a stranglehold on our government and society. Most Underneath children nowadays are forced to work on projects to fulfill the fantasies of psychopaths.” 

“Well, what makes you different?” Adeena asked. 

Ahab sighed. “My parents died when I was a toddler. I’ve been a drifter, self-sufficient and independent, for as long as I can remember. I’ve been looking at this world from the outside, much like you. And I see the things that conspire to tear apart both of our worlds in the shadowy corners of my own.” 

He stopped at the next gate, holding up his hand so Adeena would follow suit. “We’re close to the highway. The roads are dangerous, but crossing beneath the bridges is the quickest route back to my home, where you’ll be safe from the Annies and from . . . other groups.” 

Adeena nodded. “I have another question, before we move.” 

“Go ahead,” Ahad said. 

“You knew my brother was taken. You knew I’d be at that playground. How? In fact, how did I even get here? Did you bring me here somehow?” 

“That’s more than one question,” Ahab teased. “In regards to how you and Natiq got here, it was an accident, of sorts. You two fell through a Gap.” 

“What’s a Gap?” Adeena asked. 

“Gaps are . . . they’re like little holes. Spots when and where the boundaries between The Overhead and The Underneath are weakest. Usually they correspond with intentions, with places that people aren’t intended to be. Under the bed, the back of the closet, behind the mirror. Recently, there was an incident where someone accidentally made it through a Gap after being pulled beneath an escalator. In your case, it seems you two traveled through a Gap by crawling the wrong way up a slide.” 

“That can’t be true,” Adeena responded. “People would be crossing over all the time.” 

“Well, Gaps are fickle,” Ahab admitted. “They’re inconsistent, often moving around intangibly. There are ways to predict or summon Gaps, though. See, Gaps aren’t just breaches in space. They’re breaches in time, in the ethereal energies that connect us. As such, there are moment and circumstances that make Gaps more likely to appear. Anywhere close to the moment of a death, or a birth, for example. Also, certain rare phases of the moon or symmetrical times of the day, as well as inactive broadcasts, like radio or television static, or the busy signal of a phone call that can’t connect. Those moments, in proximity to Gap locations, can be enough for people or objects or animals to slip through sometimes.” 

“So, if we don’t know they’re there, it’s hard for us to stumble through them,” Adeena continued, realization dawning. “Still, I can’t believe no one in The Overhead knows about this.” 

“Oh, I have no doubt that there are those in power in your world who are intimately aware of Gaps,” Ahab said. “But The Underneath is, in many ways, far more dangerous. Leaving us alone is likely the safest thing for your people to do. That’s also why I came to pick you up as soon as I found out you were coming.” 

“Oh, that’s right!” Adeena exclaimed. “That was the other thing I asked. How did you know about me? About Natiq?” 

“Like I said before, Gaps aren’t just in space,” Ahab explained. “They’re in time. For some reason, despite all of our worlds’ major differences, we remain linked in our day-to-day lives. When someone from The Overhead gets hungry and makes a sandwich, their Underneath counterpart often does the same. Inversely, when someone from The Underneath, say, falls in love with a person, the same will eventually also happen between the same two people in The Overhead.” 

A car engine rumbled nearby, and Ahab tensed, looking around. When he continued, his voice dropped to a whisper. 

“Those moments can be a little disjointed, though. The two sandwiches might be constructed hours apart. The two lovers might meet years apart. Because we in The Underneath have spent centuries studying the Gaps, we’ve found ways to predict moments in one world by observing moments in the other. We suspect that’s where concepts like precognition and déjà vu come into play. They’re just side effects of people who are sensitive to Gaps.” 

“So . . .” Adeena hesitated. “How long ago did Natiq enter The Underneath?” 

“For you, it’s been seconds,” Ahab whispered. “For me, it’s been about a week.” 

“A week?” Adeena screamed, and Ahab waved his arms, shushing her. “Who has been keeping him prisoner for a week?” 

Faint footsteps sounded behind her, and she spun around to see three men standing about a block away, partially obscured by the shadows between the houses. She caught a glimpse of suits, of sunglasses, of faces covered in flesh-colored plastic. The men reached into their jackets, producing small objects that Adeena couldn’t quite make out from this distance. 

They have,” Ahab answered, his voice shaking. “The Sleep Police.” 

He grabbed Adeena by the hand, pulling her, and together, they turned and ran for their lives. 


The Underneath, Pt. 2 – Chase 

Adeena and Ahab burst through the fence, sprinting across the nearest street and narrowly avoiding an old sedan whose tires screeched as it skidded to a halt. Looking over her shoulder, Adeena saw The Sleep Police bridging the gap between them swiftly, wielding various tools: A tire iron, a meat cleaver, and an ice pick. The normally benign objects chilled Adeena’s veins in the hands of these strange men. 

“The highway!” Ahab yelled, pointing at a nearby bridge. “We need to get onto the highway!” 

“I thought that was too dangerous!” Adeena yelled back. 

Ahab glanced back at the Sleep Police. “We need a different kind of danger right now.” 

They pivoted into the grass, scurrying toward the car-filled asphalt, the vehicles whizzing past in a blur. As they ran, Ahab fumbled through his messenger bag, producing a short, bright-blue rod that reminded Adeena of the rattling rain stick toys often used to entertain babies. Sure enough, he adjusted something on the rod, and it producing a swooping rattle reminiscent of light rain on a tin roof. 

“I’m sorry in advance for this,” Ahab said as they reached the guard rail separating them from the highway. “You shouldn’t have to see this.” 

They climbed over the guard rail just as a massive truck rumbled by, nearly flattening them. More cars flickered past them, like giant, four-wheeled bullets, the drivers honking at the two children as they carefully tried to cross the road. When they reached the center of the road, Ahab stopped, looking back at the Sleep Police as they vaulted over the guard rail, readying their weapons. They glanced at the incoming traffic, careful to avoid the cars as they menacingly approached. 

Crouching, Ahab struck the rain stick across the ground like a match across sandpaper, and the device rattled again. Blue sparks leapt from the tip of the rod, but rather than generating flame, like Adeena expected, a thick, shin-high wall of ice spread across the road, crackling upwards. Massive, pointy icicles stretched toward the sky, creating a line of frozen spikes. 

“Oh, subhanallāh,” Adeena groaned, backing away. 

The first car passed over the ice, and the icicles dug into the tires, piercing the rubber. The wheels exploded, and the car swerved, almost striking one of the Sleep Policemen as it screeched to a stop. 

“Let’s go!” Ahab yelled. “We need to leave before they come.” 

“Before who come?” Adeena asked, but the Underneath boy just grabbed her hand and pulled her the rest of the way across the highway. 

As they ran, she heard more vehicles run across the spikes, crashing and flipping into each other, and she cringed at the sounds of screeching metal. When she glanced back, though, she saw the accident victims scrambling away from their cars, flagging down other vehicles, who stopped and allowed them to climb inside before speeding away. 

Where are they going? she silently wondered. 

The Sleep Police weaved through the mass of destroyed cars, drawing closer, and the one with the tire iron was already only a few feet away. He dove forward, grabbing Adeena’s ankle, and she collapsed on the edge of the other side of the highway, screaming. The Sleep Policeman towered over the girl, rearing back to bring his weapon down onto her skull, when something pulled him violently backwards, out of Adeena’s line of sight. 

Adeena sat up, confused, and saw the Sleep Policeman on the ground, beating his tire iron against what appeared to be a large, black, faceless alligator. The creature’s long, toothy mouth was clamped down on the man’s leg, and he desperately tried to pull away as the appendage spurted blood. The alligator shook its head from side-to-side, slamming the Sleep Policeman repeatedly against a nearby car door until he went limp, dropping his tire iron. 

A loud hiss finally registered in Adeena’s ears, and she slowly turned to survey the wreckage of the highway. Another dozen alligators, varying in size from creature to creature, slithered around the smoking cars, patrolling the area and honing in on the few people remaining on the road, including the other two Sleep Policemen. The Sleep Policemen tried to fight off the alligators, but they were quickly overwhelmed, and they silently succumbed to a gruesome, bone-crunching death. 

Ahab clutched Adeena’s shoulder, spinning her around. “Let’s go. Now.” 

He held up a black, metal whistle, putting it in his mouth.  

Together, the two children climbed down the grassy bank beyond the highway, the screams of the alligators’ victims fading away. Suddenly, four alligators appeared, circling them, baring their long, black teeth. They slithered closer, hissing, and Adeena shuddered in fear. 

Next to her, she saw Ahab take a deep breath, blowing into the whistle. 

The moment the boy exhaled, nausea washed over Adeena like a tidal wave. Her eyes blurred a little as the world began to spin, and she fell to her hands and knees, gripping the grass with clenched fists. Interestingly, though, despite all of these side effects, she couldn’t actually hear Ahab’s whistle. 

Adeena felt a hand grab hers, and she shakily returned to her feet, allowing Ahab to lead the way. She looked around at the alligators, who were all backing away, hissing, some of them even turning around to leave altogether. They continued further down the hill, aiming for a swathe of trees that appeared to be an overgrown park. As they moved, Adeena felt her nausea and dizziness slowly fade away. 

“What were those?” she mumbled. 

“Road Gators,” Ahab answered. “Kind of like your world’s vultures. They have a close connection to Gaps, and often congregate around future accident sites in both worlds to consume the people involved. Creatures of opportunity, but well-known creatures nonetheless. Hence, our deviation onto the highway, and my safety whistle.” 

As they drew closer to the trees, Adeena thought she saw eyes watching from within the park. After a moment, what appeared to be a crow emerged, fluttering beyond the treetops and silently soaring overhead, heading back toward the neighborhoods. Adeena glanced at Ahab, but he seemed to not have noticed as he fumbled through his satchel. Smiling triumphantly, he pulled his hand out of the bag, retrieving a copper-colored key. 

“Now, I just have to find it,” he muttered, waving his hands around. “I’m always bad at this.” 

He finally slapped his hand against something solid, though Adeena saw nothing but thin air. Reaching out with his key, he jiggled it for a second before Adeena heard a resounding click, and a door opened up in space, revealing a hallway. Ahab glanced back at Adeena’s incredulous expression, shrugging. 

“Digital camouflage. People don’t come near the park anyway, but keeping my hideout invisible helps with security.” 

“Why don’t they come near the park?” Adeena wondered aloud. 

“Oh, there are plenty of dangerous animals in The Underneath, just like in The Overhead,” Ahab explained. “But at certain times of the year, heavy plant growth invites malicious insect populations. Skullcap Spiders, Widow Beetles, Fire Hornets, you name it. As long as you stay out of the thorny parts of the woods, though, you should be okay. That’s where they like to nest.” 

Adeena shook her head, chuckling. “Skullcap Spiders. Road Gators. Sleep Police. What a world. Why ‘Sleep Police,’ anyway? They sure didn’t seem sleepy.” 

“Oh, I don’t know what they actually call themselves,” Ahab responded, “on account of them never talking. The term ‘Sleep Police’ was coined by my colleague.” 

“Who is your colleague?” Adeena asked. 

They turned around the corner of the hallway, entering a large room filled with brightly-colored, half-built machines. Tables and screens littered the outer walls, showing different perspectives from the outer perimeter of the hideout. Hunched over one of the tables stood a tall, muscular man with salt-and-pepper hair. The man turned around, revealing a tired, haggard face covered in stubble, a black eye patch over his left eye. 

Not a pale, bony face, though. A regular face, like Adeena was used to. 

“Adeena, meet John,” Ahab said, gesturing at the man. “He’s also from The Overhead. John, this is our new partner in crime, Adeena. She’s the sister of the boy they took last week.” 

John extended his hand. “Nice to meet you, Miss Adeena.” 

Adeena took his hand, shaking it. “Likewise, sir.” 

“Oh, and I guess there’s technically someone else you should meet,” Ahab continued. 

John nodded. “Right.” 

The man turned away from the table he’d been working at, waving his hands at what appeared to be a tuxedo-clad ventriloquist’s dummy, sporting curly brown hair and coal-black eyes. To Adeena’s shock, the dummy’s mouth flapped open on its own, and it spoke in an excitement-filled whisper. 

“Hello, my name is Trina! Would you like to be best friends?” 


The Underneath, Pt. 3 – House 

“What the heck is that?” Adeena exclaimed, backing away from the dummy. 

“She told you her name already,” Ahab teased as he sat down. “She’s an Annie, like the big one you met at the playground.” 

“She ran into an Annie?” John asked. “Are you two okay?” 

“Yes, your fake ID trick worked like a charm,” Ahab replied, nodding. “Though we did encounter some Sleep Police, but we gave those guys the slip, too.” 

The “slip,” Adeena though, shuddering as images of bones crushed between massive jaws filled her head. That’s one way to put it. 

“What am I even doing here?” she demanded. “Are you two going to tell me where Natiq is?” 

Ahab and John traded glances before the former spoke. 

“He’s in a secure holding facility called The Playground.” 

Adeena felt the blood drain from her face. “And why is he there? He’s eight.” 

“It’s not about your brother,” John sighed. “It’s about his doppelgänger in this world.” 

“Right, I remember Ahab mentioning earlier that there are versions of us here,” Adeena responded. “What does that have to do with Natiq?” 

Ahab looked at John. “You want to tell her?” 

John collapsed into a nearby chair, and Trina stood up on the table, hopping into his lap and lying still without a word. 

“Not long ago, I was a bodyguard for a high-level political leader,” John began. “Specifically, for his daughter. Her friend had recently been involved in an abduction attempt; an attempt which I now know was foiled by Ahab here.” 

Ahab shrugged sheepishly. 

“Unfortunately, the girl I was assigned to protect became convinced she was being followed. After the experience with her friend, I took her seriously, but it was too late. These men, the Sleep Police, came for her, murdering nearly a dozen people in the process. I was lucky to survive; they didn’t realize that stabbing me through the eye with a screwdriver wasn’t enough to keep me from my duties.” 

He tapped on his black eyepatch before continuing. 

“Imagine my surprise when I wake up to a house full of corpses, no more Sleep Police, yet somehow, miraculously, the girl is still in her room, curled up and crying.” 

“Oh.” Adeena frowned. “So they failed?” 

John shook his head. “That’s what they wanted us to think. And, honestly, that was what I wanted to believe for a while. It was a convenient answer.” 

He reached down, stroking the dummy’s curly brown hair. 

“But this was not my girl. This was not the person I’d grown to know. She was different; smarter than she’d ever been, but twice as mean. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know how to approach it. Until I found this in her room.” 

He picked up a small, flesh-colored mask from a nearby table, showing it to Adeena. 

“It wasn’t your girl at all,” Adeena said, realization dawning. “It was her Underneath version.” 

“At the time, I didn’t know anything about The Underneath,” John admitted. “However, I’d seen enough strange activity lately to keep an open mind. I confronted the imposter, and she pulled some kind of weapon on me, something I’ve never seen before or since. We struggled, and in the process, I shot her.” 

Adeena covered her mouth with her hands in horror. 

John averted his gaze. “I knew I was done. Life in prison. So, I raided her room of any other strange-looking technology and bolted. I’ve spent the last few months trying to reverse-engineer what happened that night to get some answers. Luckily, Ahab found out what I was doing and got to me before the Sleep Police did.” 

“With this information,” Ahab added, “we did some more research and discovered that this event was not uncommon. All around the world, children of prominent figures in industry, politics, and independent wealth have reported being watched or attacked in the last few years. All of the complaints disappear after a few days.” 

“They’re being replaced,” Adeena gasped. “Is that happening in The Overhead right now? Are a new Natiq and Adeena heading back to my parents?” 

“Maybe,” Ahab answered. “No offense, but your family doesn’t fit the profile of wealth or power that they normally target. I think this was a genuine accident, and the Sleep Police took advantage of the situation to get one more agent or spy or saboteur into The Overhead.” 

“Ahab’s been tracking their activities,” John continued. “Beyond replacing children, the Sleep Police are also creating unrest in The Overhead. They’re exploiting their knowledge of Gaps to cause major disasters in key economic and political areas. Did you hear about the London Bridge?” 

Adeena nodded. “That was them, then?” 

“We think so,” Ahab responded. “And there are more incidents like it. We think they’re manipulating events so that, when the dust settles, their Underneath infiltrators are the ones left in power. God knows what the Sleep Police will do to The Overhead once they’ve gained control of it.” 

“John said that you stopped one of the abduction attempts,” Adeena mentioned to Ahab. “Why didn’t you stop the others?” 

“Well, first of all, Gap predictions aren’t a reliable science,” Ahab admitted. “I don’t have the ability to always finitely predict Sleep Police activities before they happen. Beyond that, though, were my limited methods.” 

“What do you mean?” Adeena asked. 

“Well, when I rescued the girl from her would-be captors, I used Trina.” Ahab gestured at the dummy resting in John’s lap. 

“Right, you said she was an Annie,” Adeena commented. 

Ahab nodded. “Yes. Short for ‘Animatronic.’ Decades ago, child scientists in The Underneath perfected artificial intelligence. Being children, they implanted their creation into dolls and other lovable friends of their own creation. However, the mentally deteriorating adults in power felt threatened by this, fearing that this would be the moment that the children took away their control. So, they legislated that Annies could only be used as security or as playthings, and the AI was stripped of its personality, its independence, and any social intelligence beyond that of an Overhead version of a small child.” 

“Digital eugenics, basically,” John added. 

“Yes,” Ahab agreed. “Anyway, I found this small Annie discarded one day, and I’ve been trying to repair her both mentally and physically ever since. She’s still a little unstable, though, and after her first rescue mission, I wasn’t comfortable using her in the field like that again.” 

“So, who controls the Annies now?” Adeena asked. 

“We thought it was the international Underneath government,” Ahab answered. “However, it now seems to be the Sleep Police. Assuming those two organizations aren’t one and the same.” 

Adeena thought for a moment. “How many Annies are there?” 

“Oh, millions,” Ahab said. “Small toy Annies to watch our homes. Large hulking Annies to patrol the streets. Even the birds; The Underneath’s natural predators led to an avian extinction long ago. Now, the birds you see are all Annies, mechanical spies who can be anywhere in minutes.” 

“Really?” Adeena frowned. “But I saw a bird near your house when we got here.” 

“What?” John and Ahab yelled in unison, jumping to their feet. Trina tumbled out of John’s lap, but deftly twirled through the air, landing on her feet. 

“Yeah.” Adeena pointed behind her. “It flew back toward the town.” 

Suddenly, a red light began flashing in the room, and a message appeared on all of the monitors: PROXIMITY ALERT. Ahab rushed to one of the screens, and the words flickered away, replaced with security footage of at least a dozen Sleep Policemen readying various tools as weapons. 

“Where is that camera?” Adeena squeaked. 

John rushed to a metal locker in the back of the room, opening it. “Right outside.” 

Heavy knocks on the front door. TAP-TAP-TAP. 

John tossed something to Ahab, and the boy caught it, revealing what appeared to be a bright red toy pistol designed like a 1950s-era ray gun. Ahab fiddled with a switch on the side, and the barrel glowed orange. The boy noticed Adeena staring at the device. 

“Heat ray,” he said. “Classic Underneath tech.” 

Adeena saw John pull a short, black rifle out of the locker. 

“Is that an Underneath weapon, too?” she asked. 

John opened a breech on the side of the rifle, loading cartridges into it. “This? This is a shotgun. Call me old-fashioned.” 

He pumped the weapon, chambering a round. 

“What do I do?” Adeena asked. 

Ahab turned around, handing her some kind of dial. “You are getting out of here, through the back and into the park. They won’t follow you there.” 

Thunderous banging on the door now, and Adeena saw the Sleep Policemen using a battering ram through the security monitors. She took the dial, gulping against her parched throat. 

“I thought you said the forest was dangerous?” 

“I said it’s only really dangerous in the thorny areas,” Ahab responded. “That’s where the worst nests are. Use this compass to get out to the other side. Cardinal directions are inverted in The Underneath, so the needle points South, but you’re actually going to be headed Southeast. Stay in that direction until you see sidewalk again, and wait there. We’ll come find you.” 

The door burst open, and the Sleep Police flooded inside, readying their weapons. John took aim, firing a shotgun blast into the closest intruder, who flew backwards into his comrades. Ahab followed suit, pulling the trigger of his ray gun, and another Sleep Policeman burst into flames, waving his arms in pain as he ran back out the door. 

“Trina!” Ahab yelled. “Play rough.” 

The dummy’s head began to spin around. “Don’t play rough with my friends!” 

A Sleep Policeman rushed forward, sporting a kitchen knife, but Trina intercepted, barreling into his shin and toppling him. He tried to return to his feet, but Trina grabbed his arm, twisting it. Something snapped, and the Sleep Policeman squirmed, dropping his knife. Trina scooped it up and buried it into the back of his skull like a carving knife into a jack-o’-lantern. He fell still, twitching occasionally. 

John and Ahab fired into the gathering crowd as their animatronic assistant leapt into the fray, slashing and gouging at the attackers. Adeena backed away from the action, shaking from the burst of adrenaline. 

“Go!” Ahab yelled. “We’ve got this!” 

Turning on her heels, Adeena sprinted into the back hallway. As she reached for the rear door, it burst open, and a hatchet-wielding Sleep Policeman strode inside. She gasped, staggering backwards, and she thought for a moment she saw his plastic face twist into a smile.  

Then, Trina was there, scaling his leg like a mountain climber. He tried shaking her off, but she wouldn’t let go, the kitchen knife firmly gripped between her painted lips. The Sleep Policeman swung his hatchet down at her, but she swiveled out of the way at the last moment, and he buried the weapon into his own leg. As he writhed in pain, Trina climbed up his back, straddling his shoulders like a child demanding a piggy-back ride. Before he could react, she retrieved the knife from her mouth and began stabbing him in the neck repeatedly. Blood sprayed from the arterial wounds, and the Sleep Policeman collapsed, exposing Adeena’s portal to freedom. 

“Uh, thanks, Trina,” she said to the now blood-covered dummy, who ignored her and rushed back toward John and Ahab. 

“Remember!” Ahab yelled at Adeena’s back as she sprinted into the trees. “Beware the thorns!” 


The Underneath, Pt. 4 – Thorns 

Adeena gasped for air as she ran through the forest, wincing against the twigs and branches that caught on her clothes and slapped her face. As she burrowed deeper into the foliage, she felt her foot snag an exposed root, and then she was tumbling downhill, tucking her arms and knees into her chest to avoid injury. She finally came to a rest in a small valley, groaning from the bruises she’d accrued along her descent. Reaching up, she tried to straighten her hijab, but it was gone; all she felt was her long, brown hair piling up around her neck and shoulders. 

“Oh no,” she lamented aloud. “My parents are going to be so mad.” 

Standing up, she moved forward, retrieving the compass that had miraculously survived the fall with only a small crack in the glass. The needle swiveled for a second, settling on its magnetic pole. 

South, Adeena remembered. And I’m going Southeast. 

She trekked into the trees, following the compass directions as she dove deeper into the forest. Soon, the sounds of Ahab’s battle faded, along with every other noise beyond Adeena’s own breath. She felt the temperature drop rapidly as darkness encroached upon all sides, and she wished that she’d had the chance to ask Ahab for a flashlight before her exodus. 

“Or whatever wacky thing they use for flashlights,” she corrected herself aloud. 

Suddenly, a little girl’s voice called out in the distance. “Hello? Is someone there? Please help me!” 

Lowering her compass, Adeena angled to the left, rushing toward the voice. “I’m coming!” 

She pushed her way through a particularly dense thicket, stumbling out the other side into a small clearing. In the center of the grassy spot sat a small, black-haired Underneath girl, quietly crying into her baby-blue dress. As Adeena approached, the girl looked up, wiping away her tears, smiling back with her thin, red lips. 

“I thought I heard someone,” the girl whispered. 

“It’s okay,” Adeena said, easing into the clearing. “It’s just me. How did you get here?” 

Something scratched her ankle, and she looked down to see a small thorn bush nestled against her leg. Pulling away, she glanced around the clearing; similar bushes circled the space, small and almost unnoticeable. But Adeena noticed, and her blood ran cold as she remembered Ahab’s words: Beware the thorns. 

“Honey, come over here,” Adeena whispered, crouching to the same level as the girl. “This is a dangerous part of the forest.” 

The girl rose to her feet, smiling wider. “Not for me.” 

“Excuse me?” Adeena asked. 

“I said, this isn’t dangerous for me,” the girl repeated. “And it isn’t dangerous for them, either.” 

Her eyes drifted upward, into the trees, and Adeena followed suit. High above, stretched between the branches of the clearing, hung thick, grey spider webs, each strand almost the thickness of Adeena’s forearm. Thousands of small, black, fist-sized spiders scurried across the web, and as Adeena watched in horror, they began to descend toward her on their own personal strands. 

“But you’re right about one thing,” the girl continued, her voice lowering an octave. “It is dangerous for you.”  

Eight large, black legs emerged from her neck, applying pressure to her shoulders until her head popped right off, like a LEGO figurine. Instead of blood, however, more black spiders fountained from the girl’s neck stump, tumbling to the ground and crawling in Adeena’s direction. The girl’s head also leapt to the grass, quickly scurrying forward. 

“No!” Adeena screamed, backing out of the clearing. “Get away.” 

“Mmm,” the eight-legged head hummed. “You’ll make a nice new vessel.” 

Adeena spun around, sprinting back into the trees, panic accelerating her heartbeat. After a minute, she snatched the compass from her pocket, realigning herself back toward Southeast. She heard skittering sounds as tiny, sharp legs clacked across the bark-covered trees and rocky earth, and she tried not to imagine their pincers digging into her head, hollowing out her skull. 

“Come back, little one,” the spider-girl sang. “It will only hurt for a moment.” 

Adeena felt darkness encroach upon the edges of her vision as she hyperventilated, her feet pounding against the forest floor. Strands of web whipped past her on both sides, adhering to the tree trunks and growing taut. Ahead, sunlight exposed another clearing through the foliage, and Adeena aimed for that, hoping to shift directions and lose the spiders in the process. Large thorns whipped against her face as she broke through, and she felt blood trickle down her nose from a cut on her forehead. She tripped, falling face-first into the dirt. 

Silence surrounded her, and she paused, holding her breath. 

No more girl’s voice. No more scurrying spider legs. No more flickering web strands. 

Slowly, cautiously, Adeena rose to a seated position, turning to look behind her. 

Staring back, only inches from her face, sat the sharp-toothed, spider-legged girl’s head. 

Adeena covered her mouth, crawling backwards, further into the clearing. She looked around the spider-girl frantically, realizing that the trees surrounding the clearing were black with the bodies of fist-sized spiders. They shuddered, but from excitement or fear, Adeena could not tell. 

“You’re lucky,” the head whispered, its eyes darting around the clearing nervously. “This time.” 

With that, the spider-creatures retreated back into the forest, disappearing into shadow. 

Adeena exhaled slowly, the action evolving into a long sigh of relief. She stood to her feet, almost kicking a large, red-and-black flower about a foot away. Stepping back, she admired its beauty, the spotted pattern spiraling into an almost shiny-looking center. As she watched, she realized that the clearing was littered with similar flowers, almost like a little garden. 

Are these what scared away the spiders? she thought to herself. Maybe they’re toxic or something. 

Adeena started to back away, checking the edges of the clearing for lingering spiders, when the flowers began to vibrate. She paused again, anxiety welling up in her chest. 

“What now?” she muttered under her breath. 

One by one, the flowers exploded into the air, filling the clearing with small, buzzing dots. The dots swept around her, blowing back her hair, and rushed beyond the clearing, leaving the once-lush space black and decaying. Adeena stood in silence for a moment, wide-eyed, but the clearing remained calm, though far less pretty than before. 

Something tickled the back of her left hand, and she looked down to see that one of the dots had stuck around. Leaning closer, she realized the thing looked like a ladybug, with a red carapace covered in black dots. This ladybug, however, was tiny, no larger than the head of a match. It slowly crawled across her skin, heading for her fingertips, but made no attempt to bite or sting her. 

“Adeena!” a voice called in the distance. 

Adeena froze. 

Allah help me, she thought. If those spiders are back, I’m just going to die right here. 

“Follow the sound of our voices!” a second person chimed in.  

This time, she recognized it. 

“Ahab?” she hesitantly responded. 

“This way!” she heard John call. “You’re close to the other side!” 

Adeena looked down at her hand, but the little ladybug had vanished. The spot where it had stood itched a little, but as she scratched it, the sensation went away, leaving behind a numb patch of skin about the size of a quarter. 

She shrugged, jogging to the other side of the clearing and peering beyond. In the distance, she saw what appeared to be a pair of flashlights waving back and forth through the trees. Hurrying toward the lights, she drew close enough to make out three humanoid silhouettes, their sizes wildly varied. After a few more steps, she saw the faces of Ahab, John, and Trina emerge from the gloom. 

“Thank goodness, it’s the three bears,” she said. 

Ahab looked at the others. “If Trina’s too small, and John’s too big, does that make me just right?” 

Adeena blushed. “I guess it does.” 

Something scurried through the treetops, and John looked up, gripping his shotgun. “I advise we leave.” 

Nodding, Adeena followed the others through the trees, absently reaching down to scratch her hand again. 


The Underneath, Pt. 5 – Disarmed 

Adeena followed the others beyond the trees, exiting onto a small one-way road pressed so close to the back that roots and vines had grown out onto the sidewalk. She looked around, but no one else seemed to occupy the area, leaving them in the shade. Parked on the edge of the road sat a small, light-green sedan, and as sinister voices whispered through the trees at Adeena’s back, she shuddered, hurrying toward the car. 

“How did you get this?” she asked, opening the rear door. 

Ahab and John traded glances. 

“Uh,” Ahab mumbled, “we asked nicely?” 

“Sure you did,” Adeena retorted, scratching the back of her hand. The numbness had spread from the size of a quarter to almost silver-dollar size, but she saw no rash or bite marks, so she told herself not to worry. 

“Fair warning, though,” John said. “We’ve been compromised, so there’s been a change of plans.” 

Ahab nodded. “Our time is severely limited. We’re headed to The Playground right now to rescue Natiq and the other Overhead children.” 

“How are you going to do that?” inquired Adeena, trying to massage circulation back into her now fully-numb hand. 

John turned around and pointed to a box in the seat next to Adeena. “Ahab built an electrical pulse device that should be powerful enough to shut down the site’s defenses. From what we can tell, it’s mostly guarded by Annies, with a few Sleep Policemen to cover redundancies. The EMP will cripple them long enough for us to find the kids and get out.” 

“Then what?” Adeena pressed. “We have nowhere to go here.” 

“Not here, no,” John agreed. “I have a safe house back in The Overhead. We’ll all go back through the gap you entered earlier today. Recently-accessed gaps have a weaker breach threshold.” 

“And I know how to exploit that,” Ahab added, stroking Trina’s hair while she sat in his lap. 

The numbness began to crawl past Adeena’s wrist, and she frowned, vigorously rubbing her arm. Suddenly, cold, sharp steel found its way under her throat, and she stared into the coal-black eyes of a blood-soaked ventriloquist’s dummy. The knife in the doll’s hand pressed against her jugular, and Adeena held her breath, wide-eyed. 

“Someone’s got a secret,” Trina whispered in an excited sing-song voice. 

“Sorry, she’s just reacting to biological readings,” Ahab apologized. 

John sighed. “You couldn’t make her less creepy about it, though?” 

“Look,” Ahab snapped, “when you know how to remap an artificial consciousness from scratch, you can have an opinion on her personality quirks, okay?” 

“Blood pressure elevated,” Trina continued. “Major fluid loss registered, along with diminishing muscle mass.” 

“Wait, what?” Ahab said, spinning around in his seat. “She’s not bleeding. She looks fine.” 

“Well, my left hand is kind of numb,” Adeena admitted.  “But I don’t think it’s-” 

“Stop the car,” Ahab commanded, and John obliged. Both exited the vehicle, gesturing for Adeena to follow. 

“What is going on?” demanded Adeena, stepping onto the sidewalk. 

“Trina,” Ahab said, ignoring the girl, “Scan Adeena for foreign bodies. Left arm.” 

Trina’s black eyes flickered green for a few seconds. “Widow Beetle nest present. Descending from forearm to elbow.” 

“I’m sorry, what is present?” Adeena cried. 

Ahab retrieved his heat ray gun. “John, do you have a mouth guard?” 

John reached back into the car, rolling up what appeared to be a washcloth. “This may have to do.” 

“Okay.” Ahab closed his eyes. “Restrain her.” 

John reached around Adeena from behind, forcing the wad of cloth into her mouth as she struggled. Holding her head and neck in place with one arm, he used his other hand to extend her left arm. She tried to pull away, screaming, but her cries were muffled past the washcloth. 

“I’m sorry, Adeena,” Ahab whispered, adjusting the controls on his heat ray gun. Trina came to the boy, and he took aim at her knife, depressing the trigger. After a few seconds, the edge of the blade turned orange, smoking a little as the dried blood vaporized. 

“Trina,” Ahab said, fiddling with the gun again, “please proceed.” 

Immediately, so quickly that Adeena hardly registered the movement at first, Trina leapt into the air, slicing the knife down into her left arm with enough force to sever the appendage right past the elbow, the heat of the metal cauterizing the wound in the process. Her arm landed on the sidewalk, crumbling into a mass of thousands of the tiny ladybug-creatures she’d encountered in the forest. Before they could scatter, Ahab took aim with his heat ray, and the insects burst into flames, disintegrating into ash. 

John released Adeena, and she ripped the cloth from her mouth, sobbing hysterically. “You cut off my fucking arm!” 

Ahab held out his hands apologetically. “I’m sorry, I didn’t have a choice. Widow Beetles infect and multiply inside animal tissue like a virus, replacing the cells with more of themselves. If we had waited even a few more minutes, they would have reached beyond your arm, to your brain and lungs. I did this to save you.” 

“Ahhh!” Adeena screamed animalistically, running forward to kick Trina. 

The dummy casually side-stepped the attack, watching Ahab for further directions, and Adeena stumbled forward, almost falling. Before she could collapse, though, John and Ahab were there, holding her up. Leaning into John’s ribcage, she let out another scream, this one devolving into more tears of loss and pain. 

“I’m so sorry,” Ahab whispered quietly. “I’ll make you a new arm. A better one. I promise.” 

________________ 

An hour later, Adeena, John, Ahab, and Trina sat inside their questionably-obtained sedan, examining the nondescript building across the street. It seemed rather dull and grey, like a basic warehouse, but Adeena spied old, unlit neon signs hanging off the walls covered in phrases like “Fun for the family!” and “Free food for adults over 40.” 

“This is it,” Ahab said. “I have a rough map of the interior. Once we activate my EMP, we’ll be lucky to have five minutes before the Sleep Police on site catch on and reroute power to the Annies. Then, we’ll be on borrowed time.” 

He reached over to the now-opened box next to Adeena, retrieving a device that looked like an old VCR with a small satellite dish mounted on top. Angling the dish toward The Playground, he pressed a few buttons, and the device hummed to life. Ahab grabbed Trina, who was examining the EMP, and pulled her up to the front seat, plopping her back into his lap. 

“Sorry, Trina,” he said, “but trust me, you don’t want to be in front of that thing when it fires.” 

As the EMP primed, Adeena reached over to the elbow-length stump where the other half of her arm used to be. 

“Alright,” Ahab announced. “Counting down. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . fire.” 

The satellite dish bucked a little, and across the street, the neon signs lit up for a second before exploding in a shower of sparks. Though the street had felt quiet before, it seemed even more quiet now, as if a noise beyond Adeena’s conscious registration had also fallen silent. Ahab typed a few commands into the EMP, reading the metrics on a small screen embedded near the bottom. 

“No more electrical readings from inside the building,” he confirmed aloud. “I think it worked.” 

“Now what?” Adeena asked, letting go of her arm stump. 

John retrieved his shotgun, loading fresh shells into the breech. “They call it The Playground, right? Let’s go play.” 


The Underneath, Pt. 6 – Playground 

As Adeena and the others hurried across the street to the Playground entrance, Ahab reached into his satchel, retrieving his heat ray gun. He fiddled with it for a moment as they reached the building, pressing themselves against the wall on either side of the entrance. Balancing his shotgun in one arm, John leaned over with his free hand and tested the barrier. 

“Locked,” he whispered. 

Ahab nodded. “That was to be expected.” 

He took aim at the door with the heat ray, and the handle melted into orange slag, burning a hole straight through the lock to the other side. As Ahab lowered his gun, John stepped forward, shouldering the door open. Together, the four of them crept into a wide, pitch-black room, with only the ambient light from the streetlamps outside to guide them. 

“Trina,” whispered Ahab, “illuminate.” 

The dummy’s eyes lit up bright green, casting beams of light into the space. As Adeena adjusted to the sudden brightness, she registered loops and tunnels, bars and slides. Winding stairs led to multiple floors, and various platforms dropped back down to the ground. 

“It’s . . . it’s an actual playground,” she whispered. “But it’s massive.” 

John nodded. “Yeah, that’s gotta be at least a few stories tall. Probably several secure rooms closer to the center. This might be a little maze-like.” 

Ahab cleared his throat, pointing to their left. “Well, we better hurry.” 

Adeena followed his finger to see a ten-foot, hulking Annie with the features of a parrot hunched against the far wall of the warehouse, seemingly powered down. Ahab pointed again, exposing a second Annie, this one designed like a raccoon. As Adeena turned, she saw yet another mechanical nightmare, its tall ears identifying it as a rabbit. 

Gulping, Adeena followed the others into a large, yellow tunnel, their footsteps echoing against the walls as they made their way into the labyrinth. Ahab aimed some kind of sensor ahead of them, frowning. 

“I’m not getting much in the way of heat signatures,” he said. 

“But we know they brought the kids here,” John insisted. “Maybe they’re being kept in a room that prevents outside scans.” 

Ahab lowered his gaze. “Maybe.” 

John stepped ahead of the Adeena and Ahab, leaving Trina in the back to watch their exit. They twisted and turned, curved and crawled, making their way across ladders and steps and ropes. The inside of the massive Playground felt cold and sterile to Adeena, and she shuddered at the thought of being trapped inside for a week like Natiq. 

“Hey,” Ahab finally said, pointing down a hallway to their right. “The schematics we pulled indicated a holding cell in that direction. Not too far from here.” 

Suddenly, rapid footsteps approached, and a Sleep Policeman appeared around a nearby corner, wielding a crowbar. John swung the shotgun in his direction, but he kicked the former bodyguard in the chest, knocking him to the floor and discharging a round into the ceiling. As Adeena’s ears rang, the Sleep Policeman hurled the crowbar at Ahab’s arm, battering the heat ray gun out of his hand and sending it sliding across the floor. 

“Hey!” Trina screeched. “You big meanie!” 

She hurled herself at the Sleep Policeman, swinging her knife, but he ducked below her attack, flip-kicking her in the back so that she accelerated, colliding with the far wall. 

John crawled to his feet, clutching his shotgun, while Adeena rushed to Ahab’s side. 

“Is your hand okay?” she asked the boy, concerned. 

He flexed his fingers for a few seconds. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.” 

Another shotgun blast reverberated throughout the tunnels, and Adeena spun around to see the Sleep Policeman hurtling backwards, the front of his shirt shredded. He tumbled across the floor, where Trina appeared, pinning his arm to the ground with her knife. The Sleep Policeman snarled silently, trying to pull away, but he was firmly planted there. John walked over to him, leveling his shotgun. 

“This is for Paco,” he said, pulling the trigger. 

The shotgun bucked, emitting a spray of pellets that disintegrated the Sleep Policeman’s head from such a short distance. Blood fountained from the decapitated corpse, and it fell still. 

Adeena backed away from the violent scene, covering her eyes with her remaining hand. “I don’t think I’m cut out for this.” 

“Don’t worry,” Ahab reassured her as he retrieved his heat ray gun from the ground. “Once we recover Natiq, we’ll get your family to John’s safe house in The Overhead. No more violence.” 

With that, he reached out, opening the door to the holding cell, exposing a room full of tiny, charred skeletons. 

“Oh . . .” he murmured, stepping back. “Damn.” 

“What?” John said, approaching the doorway. “Is Lena in there?” 

He barged into the room and stopped, dropping the shotgun from his shaking hands. “Where are the children?” 

The others followed him into the room, the walls lined with chairs attached to electrical diodes, the floor littered with blackened bones. Ahab moved to the nearest chair, examining it, while John walked in circles around the skeletons. 

“What is this?” he boomed at Ahab. “Are we in the wrong room?” 

Ahab stepped away from the chair, burying his head in his hands. “These are cranial interceptors.” 

“What the fuck does that mean, Ahab?” John yelled. 

“They, uh . . .” Ahab paused for a moment before continuing. “They use them to extract memories. Forcibly. They download the memories of a subject, but it lobotomizes them in the process.” 

“What does that have to do with Natiq?” John asked. “With Lena?” 

Ahab turned to face the skeletons on the ground. “Don’t you understand, John? The Underneath replacements wouldn’t be convincing unless they knew everything about the original ones. Unless they were debriefed about significant events, personality traits, character flaws . . .” 

“They drained the information out of the children,” Adeena whispered, tears welling in her eyes. “Out of my brother.” 

“And then, uh . . .” Ahab gestured to the floor. “They had no use for braindead bodies.” 

John grabbed Ahab by the shoulders, lifting him into the air and slamming him against the wall. “Don’t you tell me that. Don’t you fucking tell me that Lena is dead.” 

Adeena slowly sat on the floor, curling up in the fetal position as tears rolled down her cheeks. 

“Say something, goddammit!” John screamed in Ahab’s face. 

Ahab stared back at the man, his eyes watering. “I don’t know what else to say.” 

Overhead, the lights flickered on, producing a neon red that filled the horrific space. Adeena heard machines outside roar to life, and heavy, mechanical footsteps approached. 

“Uh-oh,” Trina whispered. 

John snarled, dropping Ahab and snatching the shotgun back off the ground. “I’ll find her myself.” 

“John, wait,” Ahab pleaded. “She’s gone. They’re all gone. But we aren’t. Don’t get us all killed to chase a fantasy.” 

Adeena nodded, wiping away her tears. “Ahab’s right. We couldn’t have done all of this without you. Please don’t leave us.” 

Growling, John ran his fingers through his hair. “Okay. Okay. Let’s go.” 

The exited the room, sprinting around the corner and almost running headfirst into the raccoon-Annie. It growled at them, the voice a chilling mix of mechanical and animalistic, and produced razor-sharp claws from its fingertips. Behind them, Adeena heard the parrot-Annie screech as it approached.  

Trina reached up, tugging at Ahab’s shirt. He looked down, and they stared at each other silently for a moment as John unleashed a barrage of shotgun blasts into the two Annies. Finally, the doll nodded, pointing back at the holding cell. 

“I’m out!” John announced, dropping the shotgun and unholstering his pistol, firing repeatedly into the face of the raccoon-Annie. The machine seemed unfazed as its outer layer of faux fur shredded away, revealing a silver skeleton beneath. It reached out, picking John up and hurling him to the floor with a sickening thud. 

Suddenly, Trina’s mouth flopped open, and a shrill, steady scream emerged. The two Annies froze, shuddering at the sound, and turned to the dummy, eyes glowing red. She raced down the hallway, away from the rest of the group, her high-pitched cry unwavering. The Annies rushed after her, leaving John and the others alone as they stomped away. 

“John,” Ahab said. “We need to get back into the holding cell. It’s sturdier than the other rooms.” 

“Sturdier?” Adeena asked, confused. “Why does that matter?” 

Ahab sighed dejectedly. “Trina is going to save us one more time.” 

He led John and Adeena into the holding cell, careful not to step on any of the bones as they closed the door behind them. Trina’s scream slowly faded away, along with the heavy footsteps of the larger Annies. After a moment, a thunderous explosion rocked The Playground, the shockwave knocking all three people to the floor. Smoke crawled under the crack in the holding cell door, and Adeena coughed, trying to clear her lungs. 

“Hurry, before more arrive,” Ahab said, opening the door. 

Adeena and John followed him, gasping as sunlight washed across their faces. The entire back half of The Playground was gone, along with the rear wall of the warehouse containing it. Warped metal and burning plastic created a trail to freedom, and they followed it eagerly. 

________________ 

The car ride to the small jungle gym where Adeena had appeared was somber, and no one seemed to know what to say for most of the journey. Finally, Ahab spoke up, his voice hoarse and soft. 

“I’m sorry. You know, about Natiq. And Lena.” 

John nodded, his eyebrows furrowing. “I’m sorry about Trina, too. I know how much she meant to you.” 

“It’s okay,” Ahab responded. “I can rebuild her. The core of her consciousness originates somewhere with the source code of the collective Annie AI. I’ll find her in there again someday.” 

The car pulled up to the edge of the sidewalk, and Adeena saw the slide that had started this whole mess sitting empty, only a few dozen feet away. 

“What now?” she asked. “There are no children to save. No families to relocate. It’s just us. Us, and the Sleep Police, and the coup from The Underneath.” 

Ahab turned to face her. “I don’t blame whatever decision you two make. However, to me, this is far from over. We have over a hundred Underneath children masquerading across the world in The Overhead. That we know for sure. I’m going to find them, I’m going to get the answers I need, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.” 

John looked at the boy. “I’m in. What is left for me in either world, anyway?” 

“As long as we get my parents somewhere safe first, I’m with you, too,” Adeena agreed. “Someone has to answer for Natiq.” 

Ahab locked eyes with the girl. “They will. I promise.” 

Squinting against the setting sun, Ahab and Adeena climbed out of the right side of the car, the vehicle temporarily blocking their view of the jungle gym. As John exited the left side, Adeena thought she saw the shadows shift, and a stray beam of sunlight on the ground grew brighter, warping in the man’s direction. 

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing. 

John looked at his feet as the stray sunlight beam crawled up his body, towards his head. “That’s strange.” 

Ahab turned to see what they were discussing, and his eyes widened. He opened his mouth, but before he could speak, the beam of light narrowed, and John’s skull exploded. 


The Underneath, Pt. 7 – Sunset 

As John’s decapitated corpse collapsed, neck stump sizzling, Ahab dove at Adeena, knocking her over. They struck the asphalt, and Adeena saw another silent flash of light. The car windows overhead exploded, the shards of glass red-hot as they splattered into the road. 

“John!” Adeena screamed. 

“He’s gone,” Ahab said, holding her down. “He’s gone. They sent a Solar Sniper. They must have known we’d eventually come back here.” 

Another flash, and the tires near their head burst, the rubber bubbling as it melted. 

“What do we do?” Adeena asked. 

Ahab shook his head. “I don’t know. Solar Snipers, sometimes called ‘Daylight Assassins,’ use a weapon that manipulates ambient light to create bursts of extreme heat and pressure. It has nearly unlimited range, and, as long as there’s light, unlimited ammunition.” 

“So, we just wait,” Adeena said, looking at the sunset. “He won’t be able to shoot us when the night falls.” 

“We’ll, there’s still moonlight,” Ahab responded, “and while it’s not as powerful at night, waiting around another hour guarantees another surprise visit from the Sleep Police.” 

The pavement near their prone bodies exploded in the wake of a fourth flash, and they crawled backwards, away from the car. 

“Where is he?” Ahab murmured to himself, examining the scorch marks on the ground. His eyes froze as they traveled upward, towards the passenger’s side door. 

“What is it?” Adeena whispered. 

Without answering, Ahab reached into his bag, retrieving his heat ray gun. He took aim, pulling the trigger, and Adeena watched the passenger’s side-view mirror droop as it melted off of the car. Ahab dove forward, catching the mirror in his hands as he skidded across the road. Rolling back toward Adeena, he held up the mirror triumphantly. 

“The rifle uses light, right?” he said. 

Adeena nodded. “You’re going to deflect the beam?” 

Ahab grimaced. “I’m going to try.” 

He tossed the heat ray gun to her, and she fumbled to catch it with her remaining hand. 

“It’s on the highest setting,” he said as she adjusted her grip until her finger rested on the trigger. “When the Solar Sniper fires, you should see a second flash at the origin point. Find where he’s shooting from, and burn it down.” 

Adeena nodded, readying herself. 

“Three . . .” Ahab began. “Two . . . One . . . Go.” 

They sprinted around the car, Adeena flanking the left while Ahab flanked the right. Squinting, Adeena watched the row of two-story homes past the other side of playground, lagging behind so that Ahab would be the first to reach the jungle gym. She saw the dying sunlight twist and writhe across the grass, slithering in the boy’s direction, and returned her attention to the houses. 

There, she thought. Blue one, on the left. 

Sure enough, she spied a bright glimmer in the upstairs window of the home, with a small, thin silhouette standing behind the light. As the sunlight converged on Ahab, she lifted her arm, taking aim with the heat ray.  

The yellow light beams rushed up Ahab’s body, congregating around his heart, but as it focused, he quickly raised his mirror, blocking the spot. Adeena saw a flash, and the mirror exploded from the boy’s hands, while a beam of yellow energy carved a smoking divot in the earth a few yards away. 

“That was my one shot!” he lamented aloud. 

Don’t worry, Adeena thought. I got him. 

She pulled the trigger, and flames instantly erupted from the sniper’s window, the backdraft shattering the glass. The rifle-wielding silhouette launched itself from the house, clothes ablaze, and landed out of sight behind a row of cars parked along the sidewalk. 

“Come on!” Ahab yelled. “We don’t have much time!” 

Adeena joined the boy, tossing the ray gun back to him, and together, they sprinted to the jungle gym. As they reached it, Ahab dug through his bag, producing an old flip phone. He dialed a number and put the device on speaker, placing it at the foot of the green tube slide as it began belting a loud, monotonous busy signal. 

“Up or down?” he asked. 

Adeena cocked her head. “What?” 

“Up or down?” he repeated, louder. “Did you crawl up the side originally to get here, or go down it?” 

“Oh. Up.” 

Ahab nodded. “Then this time, we go down.” 

They turned to the cramped, plastic stairs, crawling up them to the apex of the tube slide. As they reached the highest platform, an explosion rocked them, and the nearby swing set evaporated in a shower of molten metal. Adeena glanced back toward the burning house, and she caught a glimpse of the Solar Sniper: Young, feminine, with long brown hair and beady eyes hiding behind a familiar, olive-skinned mask. 

“Is that . . . me?” she gasped. 

“Look!” Ahab shouted, ignoring her. She turned to the slide, within which flickered a dim, green light.  

The Solar Sniper took aim again, the final bits of sunlight converging on the slide, and Adeena grabbed Ahab by the waist, hurling them both into the abyss. They tumbled down plastic, static electricity building up in their hair and clothes, before emerging at the bottom, crumpled in a heap. Behind them, Adeena saw the green light flicker once more before fading into darkness. 

Groaning, Adeena pulled herself out of the slide, collapsing on the grass. Ahab follow suit, and together, they anxiously inspected their surroundings in the setting sun. 

No rust on the jungle gym. 

No pale faces peering through windows. 

No Annies patrolling the street. 

And, it seemed, no Solar Sniper chasing after them. 

To Adeena’s surprise, a giggle bubbled up out of her throat, and she covered her mouth, silencing it with a squeak. Ahab looked at her, and his thin, red lips curled up into a smile as he chuckled a little. She dropped her hands, laughing with him, and as their bodies shook, they embraced. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes, and she felt her laughs devolve into sobs. She cried, burying her face in the shoulder of the boy from another world, mourning Natiq and John and even Trina. Eventually, the tears diminished, and she sniffled, pulling away from Ahab. 

“We have a lot to do, don’t we?” she asked. 

His eyes met hers, and she saw a tinge of sadness behind them. Even deeper, though, glimmered a spark of hope. 

“Yes,” he finally replied. “Yes, we do.” 

Phase I — Troubled Youth

A Midnight Visitor 

The bedroom’s darkness felt soft, almost tangible, seemingly capable of dampening even the loudest of noises. Child’s toys were strewn about the carpet in carelessness, the floor nothing more than a plastic junkyard. A clock mounted on the wall ticked away, the second hand pursuing the skyward-facing number “twelve.” It soon reached it, landing juxtaposed to its time-telling brethren. The clock whirred and lit up, producing a musical flurry that, as far as its owner knew, it wasn’t designed to. 

11:11PM. 

A warm, forgiving summer breeze softly blew through the open window, rustling the dark brown curls of the small girl, asleep in her bed. The world was completely still, and deathly quiet. 

“Hello, Tina,” a voice whispered. 

Tina’s eyes snapped open, and she sat upright in her bed, searching for the source of the noise. Her eyes widened further as she discovered it. On the windowsill, backlit by the moon and stars, sat a ventriloquist’s dummy. 

Nearly three feet in length, the figure sported a miniature black-and-white tuxedo, with a black bow to match. Its head, though slightly pale, sported brown curls identical to Tina’s. It possessed no irises, though; only coal-black spots embedded in its face. The lips, painted a faint pink, curled upward into a smile, which split disturbingly as its mouth flapped open. 

“Who . . . who are you?” Tina softly asked. 

Silence, for a moment, before the dummy spoke. “My name is Trina. It’s nice to meet you!” 

Its voice maintained a low whisper, but it held an excitement, an underlying anticipation, as if it knew a secret that Tina was yet to discover. 

Tina leaned to the side, trying to see beyond Trina. “Who’s outside the window? Who’s controlling you?” 

Not waiting for an answering, the girl moved to climb out of her bed. 

Trina’s voice quickly dropped several octaves. “Don’t you dare move from that spot.” 

Shuddering, Tina obliged. 

“No one controls me,” Trina continued, her voice returning to its soft whisper. “No one.” 

Tina looked at her closed bedroom door. 

“You won’t make it if you run,” Trina warned in a sing-song voice. 

“What do you want?” Tina asked the dummy, her voice trembling. 

Trina tilted her head to the left, then to the right, seeming to survey the room. “I just came to chat.” 

Sitting against bed’s headboard, Tina pulled her blanket up to her chin. “What do you want to talk about?” 

The dummy’s head lolled to one side as it said, “Well, I wanted to get to know you. I have a feeling we’re going to be best friends soon. Wouldn’t you like to be best friends?” 

“Um . . . I don’t know,” Tina responded. “I don’t know you.” 

“That’s rude,” Trina hissed. “I’m trying to do that right now, aren’t I?” 

Tina curled into a ball. “Yeah, I guess.” 

“So, Tina,” the dummy spat, the name leaving its mouth almost threateningly, “what do you do for fun?” 

Pointing at a nearby desk, Tina said, “I like to make things. Especially out of paper.” 

Trina leaned forward, further into the room, but didn’t leave the windowsill. Her head swiveled to the side, absorbing the flat surface covered in coloring books, construction paper, pens, pencils, and glue. Suddenly, the dummy straightened up, as if intrigued. 

“Say, what’s that shiny thing?” 

“Oh, that?” Tina glanced at her crafting desk. “It’s a utility knife. It’s kind of like scissors, but I find it easier to cut up little things.” 

Trina laughed in a soft, steady tone, like air leaking from a tire. “Who doesn’t like to cut up little things?” 

The dummy’s hands lifted, landing palms-up in its lap. “Give it to me.” 

Tina opened her mouth to object. “But . . . it’s mine–” 

“I said give it to me,” Trina interrupted. 

Leaning over the edge of the bed, Tina picked up the utility knife with shaking hands. The object was mostly silver handle, with a small, triangular blade at the end, no more than an inch long. She moved to leave the bed. 

“No, no,” Trina objected. “Just toss it over here. Don’t let it go out the window.” 

Tina raised up on her knees and tossed the knife to the dummy. It sailed through the air, almost floating, and landed perfectly into Trina’s lap. Trina’s head drooped for a moment, like a puppet with cut strings, before straightening back up, the knife clenched in her small, wooden hand. The dummy examined the knife, then released it onto its lap. 

Sighing, Trina whispered, “Why do such little girls have such deadly toys?” 

“I mean, I am eight and half,” Tina replied indignantly. “I can take care of myself.” 

“Can you?” the dummy asked. “Tell me, where you do go to school?” 

Tina sat back again. “Chadwell Elementary.” 

“And your parents? What do they do?” 

Tina thought for a moment. “My dad is a chef. My mom is always on the TV, talking about boring things. I’m not sure what she does, honestly.” 

“She sounds important,” Trina whispered. “So, I’ll ask again, do you think you can take care of yourself?” 

Tina’s blood ran cold. “What do you mean?” 

“Well, important people make enemies,” Trina explained. “Enemies who might want to use you to get to them.” 

“Oh . . .” Trina lowered her gaze. “I didn’t know that.” 

“It’s okay!” the dummy exclaimed, its voice quiet, but harsh. “That’s why I want to be your friend! We can learn so much from each other. Don’t you think?” 

Tina offered a half-smile, nodding. 

Outside the isolated bedroom, footsteps sounded, muffled by the carpet. Trina turned to the door, and Tina followed suit. Over her shoulder, the girl heard the dummy whisper, “He’s here for you.” 

“Who?” Tina squeaked. 

The door gently swung open, revealing a tall, muscular man in a black ski mask. Tina tried to run, to scream, but she was paralyzed. He looked at her, leveling a knife. 

“Come with me, kid.” 

Trina began to vibrate, her head spinning around repeatedly. “Don’t play rough with my friends.” 

The masked intruder stepped forward, mouth opening as he registered the dummy. “What the hell . . .” 

Tina’s wits returned, and she sprung from the bed, dashing past the man and into the hallway. He turned to give chase, but the bedroom door slammed shut, separating them and sealing him inside the room. The man banged on the barrier. 

“Hey! What is this?” 

Then, a snap, like a bent twig. The man screamed, his voice now shrill and feminine. Another snap, and then a third, in quick succession now. The crunching continued, reminding Tina of the sound of chewing on breakfast cereal. His screams petered out into a pathetic whimper, finally falling silent. 

A loud thump resounded behind Tina, and she spun around, running straight into her mother’s open arms. 

“Sweetie, what happened?” her mother asked, pulling Tina close. 

Tina began to sob. “There’s– there’s– there’s someone in my room.” 

Her father appeared, brandishing a baseball bat. “Honey, open the door.” 

“No!” Tina screamed, but her mother ignored her cries, twisting the knob. 

The door drifted open, revealing a dark room, a carpet covered in toys, a ticking wall clock. 

But no man. And no dummy. 

The family wandered inside, Tina’s heart pounding in her tiny chest, and searched the bedroom. 

Nothing. No signs of life. 

Hesitantly, Tina walked to the window, peeking beyond the sill. Just past the edge, caught on the brick outside, fluttered a torn piece of black cloth. Far below, her utility knife lay on the grass, red and wet. 

Tina gasped, backing away. Her parents rushed to the window, but she continued to distance herself. After several steps, she collided with her crafting desk. Her hand brushed against the wood to steady herself, and she felt sharp splinters prick her skin. Shivering, she faced the desk, revealing a small heart carved into the surface. Scratched within the heart were six words. 

Tina and Trina: Best Friends Forever! 


The Road Gator 

The car screamed down the highway, grinding against asphalt as if it were at odds with the road itself. Wind whipped against it, lashing out violently, struggling to penetrate glass and metal to assault the soft people inside. Other vehicles sped by, the Doppler effect announcing their approach before they roared against the side of the car. In the passenger’s seat, a woman adjusted her seatbelt, turning to face behind her. 

“You okay, Flip?” 

Flip stared out the window, entranced by the shapes and sounds. 

His mother sighed, turning to her wife. “Sue, maybe we should stop the car for a while.” 

Sue nodded, activating her hazard lights, and Flip finally spoke. “It’s okay. I’m okay.” 

“You sure, kiddo?” Sue asked, glancing at the passenger seat. “Kate and I could use a break, too.” 

A truck rumbled past them, and Flip shuddered. “I’m almost ten. I’m not a chicken.” 

“Honey,” Kate replied, creasing her brow, “You have nothing to be ashamed of. The highway can be a scary place. But Sue is a great driver. She’ll keep us safe. You trust us, right?” 

Flip hesitated, then nodded. Seemingly satisfied, both of his mothers returned their attention to the road ahead. 

In the corner of his eye, Flip saw a green, rectangular sign perched on the side of the road, but it passed him too quickly for him to read it. “Where are we?” 

“We just passed into Georgia,” Sue replied. “We’re far closer to Florida than when we started!” 

Smiling faintly, Flip turned back to the window. Something small and black approached from the side of the road, its shape twisted and deformed. Flip gasped, pointing. 

Kate heard him, and turned around, assessing the situation. She looked outside and smiled. 

“Oh, don’t worry, Flip. Here in Georgia, they call those Road Gators.” 

“There are alligators in Georgia?” Flip exclaimed. 

“No, no,” Kate laughed. “It’s just a broken tire. Pieces of rubber left behind by someone else. It can’t hurt you.” 

They passed the black mass, and it faded into the distance behind them. 

“Why would someone leave behind a tire?” Flip asked. “What happened to it?” 

Kate’s smile faltered. “Well . . . Uh . . .” 

“It’s okay, honey,” Sue intervened. “Flip, it may have blown. Maybe someone ran over a sharp object, or it was just old and unsafe. It popped, like a balloon, and they replaced it before continuing on their journey.” 

Flip fidgeted nervously. “Couldn’t that cause a car accident?” 

“Maybe,” Sue admitted. “Maybe not. Our tires are fine, though. Just relax.” 

Placing his weight against the seat, Flip closed his eyes, trying to ignore the overwhelming sounds and sensations accompanying their mode of transport. The car rattled for a moment, producing a low growl, and Flip peeked out the window again. 

Another Road Gator, he thought. 

The second curled rubber strip was pushed further off the road this time, lying halfway in the grass. As Flip watched, though, it shifted, straightening out. Flip’s eyes widened, his heart pounding in his chest, while the Road Gator turned away from their passing car, slithering into the trees beyond the road. 

“Did you see that?” he whispered. 

Sue and Kate looked around, and the latter asked, “See what?” 

“The Road Gator . . .” He trailed off. What was he supposed to say? 

“I don’t know,” he continued. “I thought I saw an animal.” 

“Well, we’re in the South,” Sue chuckled. “There’s plenty to go around.” 

A massive, eighteen-wheeled truck passed them, drifting into their lane. Sue slowed a little, giving them space. “Be careful, dude.” 

More movement out the window, drawing Flip’s eye. This time, he saw three Road Gators of various sizes, their bodies rough and black, their motions serpentine as they crawled away from the road and out of sight. Flip’s heart pounded faster, and he felt tears pressing against his eyes. 

“Something’s wrong,” he whimpered. He could feel it, like the wind before a thunderstorm. 

“For the last time,” Sue scolded, turning away from the steering wheel, “there’s nothing–” 

One of the large rear tires of the truck in front of them exploded, the burst of air a shockwave that rattled Flip’s bones. Rubber spiraled into the center of the road, and the truck swerved, skidding to a stop. Kate grabbed Sue’s arm, knuckles white. 

“Sue, watch the road!” 

They collided with the back of the truck, filling the interior of the car with twinkling glass and screaming metal. Flip’s body jerked forward, only to be immediately arrested by the seatbelt’s safety mechanism. The vehicle warped around them, tearing and bending, constricting like a snake. Then, they stopped, and the world went silent, save the hissing smoke leaking from the demolished car hood. 

“M . . . mom?” Flip weakly asked, his vision blurry. As he refocused, he felt a painful tightness in his neck, making it difficult to move his head. 

The scene before him cleared, and he gasped. 

Sue’s skull folded around the corner of the truck’s cargo area that had penetrated the front windshield, her head reduced to a red, fleshy crater. The rest of her body drooped lifelessly in the driver’s seat, swaying like a mannequin in the wind. 

Kate shifted in the passenger’s seat, and optimism sparked in Flip’s chest for a moment. Then, she stiffened, seizing in the seat. Flip saw the blood where her head had struck the dashboard, realizing something was wrong with her brain now. Her seizure violently accelerated, limbs rattling against the car door and broken glass, but within seconds, she slumped over onto her wife, blood leaking from her mouth. 

“Hello? Oh, Jesus Christ,” Flip heard a man call. 

Through the shattered front window, Flip saw an older, potbellied man stumble out of the driver’s side of the now-seventeen-wheeled truck, his green baseball cap lopsided, his flannel shirt disheveled. He crouched as he hit the pavement, squinting into Flip’s car. 

“Help!” Flip yelled. “My moms are . . . are . . . help, please!” 

His tears flowed freely now, his chest heaving through spastic sobs. 

“I’m coming, kid,” the truck driver announced. “Let me get my–” 

A loud, low hiss interrupted him. 

The man slowly turned away from the car, toward the massive, knotted strip of tire that had caused this mess, now lying in the center of the highway. Flip’s sorrow turned to fear, and he fought against his seatbelt, trying to unlatch it, to get away. Something in the accident must have damaged it, though, because it wouldn’t unclasp. 

Ahead, the newborn Road Gator unfurled, betraying its size, the thing as large as the truck driver himself. Flattening against the ground, it inflated a little, four stubby legs popping out along its body. Beneath the stubbled “head,” something moved, revealing a long snout and a jaw full of pointed teeth. The Road Gator hissed again, turning threateningly toward the truck driver. 

“What?” the man rubbed his eyes, stepping toward the Road Gator. 

“No!” Flip cried, pulling against his seatbelt with all his might. “Don’t get close!” 

The Road Gator lashed out, latching on to the truck driver’s leg. It twisted, something snapped, and he fell onto his back, screaming. The Road Gator swiveled from side to side, flinging the man back and forth like a rag doll, bashing his skull against the side of his truck. After three strikes, the man fell silent, and the Road Gator crawled atop his body, emitting low, hungry grunts. 

Flip grasped the nearest car door handle, using it as leverage to pull himself forward. He wiggled back and forth, adjusting his body, slowly sliding himself out of the tight seat belt. As he freed himself, he glanced out of the window again. The truck driver lay on the asphalt, shredded to the bone, no longer recognizable. 

The Road Gator, however, had vanished. 

Heart pounding, Flip curled into the floorboards, the blood of his dead mothers dripping onto his neck as he cried. In the distance, he heard grunts, followed by heavy footsteps, like rubber dragging across the road. The sound grew closer, and Flip heard the thing’s hunger, its genesis producing an overwhelming desire to feed. 

The grunting, the scraping, came to a halt somewhere outside of the rear passenger door of the car, mere feet away from where Flip had assumed a fetal position. Then, a crunch, and sharp, black teeth as long as carrots penetrated the metal, crinkling it. Powerful jaws beyond Flip’s line of sight flexed, and the Road Gator ripped the door from its hinges, flinging it onto the highway. 

Flip hyperventilated, crawling backwards, squeezing himself between the car seats. Unfazed, the Road Gator raised one leg, planting it on the back seat, and lifted itself into the car. Flip saw no face, no eyes, no remorse; simply a force of nature, come to collect its share of souls. The Road Gator parted its mouth, hissing gently, as if trying to soothe the young boy. 

Sirens sounded in the distance, and the Road Gator slowly turned its head toward the noise. Flip felt hope in his chest. Maybe the creature would flee. Maybe he’d be rescued, and they’d find a way to save his mothers. Maybe . . . 

As if sensing Flip’s thoughts, the Road Gator returned its attention to him, hissing again. Behind it, Flip saw more Road Gators slither from the trees, joining in chorus, egging the creature on. It lowered its head, and for the briefest second, Flip thought he saw it smile. 

Then it pounced, and Flip was no more. 


Foot Race 

Night one. 

The pitter-patter of tiny feet across the floor forced Alan awake, cold sweat beading on his forehead. In the distance, he heard a faint meow, followed by more rapid footsteps. 

“Sgt. Pepper?” he whispered, tip-toeing to his bedroom door and creaking it open. 

Alan gazed into the dark living room, trying to make out the shapes of the couch and recliner, the television and coffee table. A tiny black shape suddenly dashed around the corner, squeezing between Alan’s legs and into the bedroom behind him. He began to turn around, but something in the living room caught his eye. A silhouette. 

The silhouette of a person with long, brown hair and a forest-green dress. 

“M . . . mom?” Alan stuttered. 

He blinked, and she was gone. 

Another meow, this time from his bedroom. Alan turned around and re-entered the space, coming face-to-face with a lanky black cat perched on his bookshelf. The cat blinked its bright yellow eyes at the boy, purring softly. 

“Sgt. Pepper, you’re too loud,” Alan whispered. “What are you doing, running around so late?” 

Sgt. Pepper meowed a third time, gracefully dismounting from the shelf and trotting back into the living room. Alan shook his head, climbing back into bed. 

“Alan?” he heard his father call from the other end of the house. “You okay, kid?” 

“I’m fine,” Alan responded. “Sgt. Pepper just woke me up.” 

“Okay,” his dad said. “Good night.” 

“Good night, dad,” Alan answered. He turned to a photograph of his mother on his night stand, waving at it. “Good night, mom.” 

________________ 

Night two. 

“Alan,” a voice whispered. “Alan, wake up.” 

Alan’s eyelids drifted apart, and in the crack of the bedroom door, he thought he saw his mother’s face. As his eyes focused, her visage evaporated into darkness. 

Soft taps against wood, picking up speed, and then meowing, in the darkness. 

Alan sighed. “Hey, Sgt. Pepper.” 

Yellow eyes glowed in the crack of the doorway, close to the floor. Tiny white teeth appeared, and Sgt. Pepper meowed again. 

New footsteps, louder, heavier, and the black cat scampered away. A few seconds later, Alan’s father gently opened the door, entering the bedroom. “Everything okay?” 

Alan sat up, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “Sgt. Pepper keeps waking me up. It’s like he wants something.” 

His father glanced at the picture of Alan’s mother, propped up on the boy’s nightstand. “Is it the cat, or is it something else?” 

Tears welled up in Alan’s eyes. “I miss her, dad. I miss her a lot.” 

“I know, kid.” Alan’s father wrapped him into a bear hug. “Me, too.” 

In the distance, a heavy thud, followed by more meowing. 

“Dad, why does Sgt. Pepper run around like that?” Alan asked. 

His father sat on the bed, wrapping an arm around Alan’s shoulder. “Well, my grandmother told me a story a long time ago. According to her, our ancestors in Egypt angered the demon of chaos, Apopis.” 

“What did they do?” asked Alan. 

His father shrugged. “No clue. Ancient deities tended to be fickle, though.” 

Alan giggled a little, and his father continued. 

“Anyway, our ancestors made a deal with Bastet, the cat goddess. In exchange for our shelter, Bastet came to a simple arrangement with Apopis. If, every night, Bastet beat Apopis in a foot race around the space Bastet now called home, the souls of her human hosts would be spared another day.” 

Alan’s eyes widened. “Wow. Is that why everyone in our family has cats?” 

His father nodded. “It’s just a superstition, but it’s a long-running one. Regardless, we now always keep a cat in the home. Personally, though? I think our ancestors just really liked cats. Can you blame them?” 

Alan grinned. “Thanks, dad. I feel a little better.” 

Their gazes connected, and his father smiled back, but Alan could still see the grief in the man’s eyes. 

“Well,” his father said, “good night, kid. I gotta get some sleep before work tomorrow.” 

He stood and turned to leave, but looked down at the photograph once more, chuckling. “You know, she always hated that dress.” 

________________ 

Night three. 

This time, Alan snapped awake to silence. For some reason, his heart pounded in his chest, and his t-shirt was soaked in sweat. Trembling, he slid off the bed, sneaking toward his bedroom door. He hesitated, glancing back at the photograph of his mother on his nightstand, and his eyes drifted to the alarm clock next to it. 

11:11PM. 

Beyond his sight, somewhere in the living room, Sgt. Pepper meowed.  

“There you are,” Alan whispered. 

He eased through the crack in the doorway, trying to stay as silent as possible. Something small darted through the darkness at the other end of the hallway, and Sgt. Pepper announced his presence once more. Alan pressed himself against the wall, trying to stay out of sight. The cat was up to something, and he was going to find out what. 

Another shadow flickered past his view of the living room, this one much bigger than before. Alan froze, his blood running cold. For a moment, all he heard was his heartbeat. Then, another meow, calling from the kitchen. Alan inched ahead until he reached the end of the hallway, peeking out into the living room.  

Darkness. Serene, unadulterated darkness. 

Alan crept into the living room, his stride more confident now, as he angled toward the couch. 

Suddenly, Sgt. Pepper barreled around the corner of the kitchen entrance, darting into the living room and turning sharply at the edge of the couch. Before either human or animal could adjust to his appearance, Sgt. Pepper collided with Alan’s shins, toppling the boy and sending the cat ricocheting face-first into the coffee table. Alan landed on the carpeted floor, dazed for a moment. 

“Oh wow,” a soft voice whispered above him. “That looks like it hurt. Are you okay?” 

Alan rolled onto his back and saw his mother standing above him, smiling. 

“Mom,” he gasped. “I did see you.” 

“Of course, kid,” she responded, leaning over and offering her hand. “Here, let me help you.” 

He glanced over at Sgt. Pepper, who was still lying on the ground, unmoving. Absently, he reached up. His mother’s grin widened as she leaned further forward, but at the last second, he snapped his hand back. 

“Why did you call me ‘kid?’” he quietly asked. “That’s what dad calls me.” 

Her smile faltered. 

Alan looked closer at her. The face was his mother’s. She had her long, brown hair, and the forest-green dress he saw a few nights ago. 

His breath caught in his chest. 

No, he saw that dress every night. 

“You hated that dress,” Alan whispered. “She hated that dress.” 

She straightened up, softly chuckling. “I knew I should have used a different picture. You humans are so damn sentimental.” 

Blinking, her eyes shifted to bright red, the pupils stretching into vertical, serpentine slits. She smiled again, her teeth now long, thin and sharp. 

Apopis, Alan thought. 

“Bastet’s disciple lost tonight’s race,” Apopis said. “Your soul, and your father’s, belong to me.” 

“That’s not fair!” Alan insisted, crawling backwards. “He ran into me. I got in the way.” 

“Rules are rules,” Apopis tisked. “He was supposed to beat me, and he didn’t. Don’t make me come get you.” 

Alan scrambled to his feet, looking at the spot where Sgt. Pepper had been lying. The cat was gone. 

“Please, please,” Alan begged. “My dad has been through so much. Just take me.” 

The creature masquerading as Alan’s mom inverted its limbs at the joints, dropping to the floor and crawling swiftly toward the boy. “I will take you. And then I’ll go into your father’s room, and I’ll tear out his heart, just like your mother did when she died.” 

Alan ran around the couch, but Apopis slithered over it, snagging the boy’s ankle with one hand. 

“Dad! Dmmm–” Alan attempted to scream before Apopis covered his mouth, muffling his voice. 

“We have things in Duat, in Hell, that live on your flesh, your pain. They’ll be so happy to have a little one to feast upon again.” 

Sgt. Pepper sprung from the darkness, yowling as he clawed at the demon’s face. Apopis hissed, releasing Alan and retreating further into the living room. Before the creature could recover, Sgt. Pepper planted all four paws on the carpet, offering a low, chilling growl. 

The growl reverberated through the living room, and Alan felt the ground shake beneath him. He struggled to remain standing, but failed, dropping to his knees. Similarly, Apopis collapsed onto his stomach, unable to move. A white light shone through the living room windows, blinding Alan. 

“No!” he heard Apopis cry. 

The light dimmed a little, and Alan saw a silhouette standing behind Apopis. The figure reached down, grabbed the disguised demon by the hair, and jerked upward. The outer layer of the creature, the skin that made it look like Alan’s mother, ripped away, revealing a giant, red-eyed snake curled up into a vaguely humanoid shape. Hissing once more, Apopis trying to escape, but the silhouette grabbed him by the throat, dragging him backward into the light. 

The demon screamed as the light intensified, turning its green skin black, and through acrid smoke, Alan caught a glimpse of the newcomer’s face.  

“Mom?” he whispered. 

She glanced at him, offering a soft, sad smile, and winked. Continuing her journey, she pulled Apopis into the light. The white energy faded away, leaving the living room in blackness, reducing its occupants to one boy and one cat. 

Alan stood, dumbfounded, staring into the empty room for a moment. Then he heard a faint purr, and looked down to see Sgt. Pepper rubbing himself against the boy’s legs. Kneeling, Alan pet the cat, a single tear running down his cheek. The tip of Sgt. Pepper’s tail flicked back and forth, and he closed his eyes. 

Behind him, Alan heard his father burst into the hall, rushing to the living room. “Alan? What was that? Are you okay?” 

“I’m okay, dad,” Alan said, wiping his face. “Sgt. Pepper and I were just spending some time together.” 

“Oh, really?” his father laughed, leaning to pet the cat. “Can I join?” 

Sgt. Pepper swatted his hand away, then laid down, contorting to groom between his legs. 

Alan’s dad sighed. 

“Stupid cat.” 


Dinner at Eight 

“Brodie. Psst. Hey, Brodie.” 

Sam tapped her finger on the side of Brodie’s desk, attracting his attention. He glanced at the front of the class, where the biology teacher droned on about the animal kingdom, then over Sam, who offered a wide, toothy smile, just as she’d seen actors do on TV. She ran her fingers through thick, beetle-black hair. 

“Sam?” he asked, furrowing his brow. “Is everything okay?” 

She hunched her shoulders, whispering. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” 

“Well . . .” Brodie looked around. “You and I never really talk.” 

Sam devolved into an uncontrollable fit of giggles, covering her mouth so the teacher wouldn’t hear. Through her tearing eyes, she saw Brodie raise a concerned eyebrow. 

“I know we never talk. I know that,” Sam insisted. “But I want to. I . . . I like you, Brodie.” 

Brodie’s face went white. “What?” 

“Yeah.” Sam nodded. “We should hang out more.” 

“What did you want to–” 

A small, black spider interrupted Brodie, descending from the ceiling on a thin, transparent thread. Leaning forward, Brodie clapped his hands around the spider, crushing it. As he brushed his hands against his pants, Sam felt her smile falter, forming a furious scowl. She quickly used her fingers to push her mouth back up into the face she’d approached the boy with. 

“What did you want to do?” Brodie finally continued, looking up at her. 

“Maybe you could come over for dinner tonight?” Sam responded through slightly gritted teeth, her smile stretching wider. 

“I’d have to ask my parents,” he said. “Would yours be there?” 

Sam giggled again. “My what?” 

“Your parents,” Brodie pressed. “Will they be there?” 

“Oh, yes,” Sam closed her eyes, recalling the home she’d left this morning. “I have . . . a mom, a dad, and a little brother.” 

“Okay,” Brodie said uneasily. “I’ve never seen you act like this before.” 

“I thought we never really talk?” Sam shot back, pleased with herself. 

He blushed and rubbed the back of his head. “I mean . . . Sometimes, I . . . Might watch . . . Never mind. What time should I come over for dinner?” 

Sam put a finger to her chin. “How about eight o’clock?” 

________________ 

Exiting the school bus later that day, Sam skipped merrily down the driveway, bursting through the front door of her house. “Mom! Dad! Shawn! I’m hoooooome!” 

An older, stout woman stumbled into view, fatigue painted across her face. She made an attempt to smile at Sam, but the gesture was thin and empty, betraying her fear. Sam rolled her eyes. 

“H– hey there, Sam,” her mother stuttered. “How was school?” 

“I talked to a boy today,” Sam cheerfully answered. “He’s coming over for dinner.” 

“For . . . dinner?” her mother asked hesitantly. 

Sam nodded. “At eight.” 

“Well,” the woman continued, looking around helplessly, “I have a turkey I can cook. It’ll be done close to eight.” 

“Thanks!” Sam chirped. “Where’s dad?” 

“He’s in the living room,” her mother replied, voice shaking. “Sam, could we let Jimmy out of the basement now? He’s only six. He has to eat.” 

Sam’s grin fell. “Did I say he could leave, mom?” 

Her mother backed away, cowering a little. “No, no. You didn’t. I’m sorry.” 

Sam smiled again. “That’s okay.” 

She turned and skipped through the house, entering the living room. “Hey, dad! Mom’s making a turkey for a friend tonight. What kind of vegetables do you want?” 

Her father, a burly, bearded man, turned away from the couch, glaring. “I don’t give a fuck.” 

Sam trotted around the couch, stepping in front of him. She leaned over until her nose almost touched his, her grin widening. “No bad language, dad.” 

His eyes narrowed. “Fuck you. You aren’t my–” 

Sam grabbed the man by the neck, twisting her body and hurling him across the room as if he were made of papier-mâché. He struck the opposite wall with a dull thump, leaving behind a crater in the plaster and slumping to the floor. 

“Sam! Please!” Sam heard her mother plead from the entrance to the living room. She turned to the woman, who wore a terrified expression. “He didn’t mean it. Don’t hurt him.” 

Sam glanced back at her father, who slowly pulled himself to his feet. “Don’t forget, dad. There’s more of us than there are of you.” 

“The turkey’s in the oven,” her mother continued. “Please, let’s just have a pleasant night.” 

Ignoring her, Sam exited the room, walking to the basement door. She cracked it a little, peering into the darkness. The black shapes squirmed a little, and she smiled again. 

A real smile this time. 

“Not much longer,” Sam whispered. “Be patient.” 

________________ 

Hours of tense silence passed as Sam’s parents prepared dinner in the kitchen while she sat at the dining room table. As eight o’clock approached, she heard them whispering frantically, though she couldn’t quite make out the words. Sighing, Sam stood, wandering into the kitchen. 

“What are you guys talking about?” she asked, mustering up an innocent tone. 

Both of their faces went white, and they turned to look at her, smiling. She saw through the gesture, though. She’d had plenty of practice with fake smiles. 

“You’re not going to ruin our dinner, are you?” she questioned, her voice low and threatening. 

Her parents traded glances, the room silent save the sound of vegetables in pots, bubbling in boiling water. After a moment, her father clenched his jaw, turning to his wife. 

“Baby, this thing isn’t going to give Jimmy back,” he said. “We have to save ourselves.” 

“Dave, no, don’t!” his wife whispered. 

Sam glanced behind them, in the hallway that led toward the basement. The darkness from that room trickled into the kitchen now, flowing like water toward her father’s foot. 

Unaware of what approached him, Sam’s father snatched a kitchen knife from the countertop, lunging at her. Moving so quickly that she became a blur, the girl grabbed his wrist, halting the attack. In one sharp twist, she snapped his arm out of its socket, and he cried out, dropping the knife. As she released him, the darkness on the floor covered his foot, pulling him to the kitchen floor. 

“No, no, not Dave, please,” her mother sobbed. “Take me instead.” 

Sam snapped her fingers, and the darkness pulled her father, screaming, out of the kitchen. A series of distant thumps announced his arrival at the basement as his body was pulled down its wooden steps. The basement door creaked shut, muffling his cries. 

As Sam’s mother dropped to the floor, sobbing, the doorbell rang. 

Sam rushed to her mother, jerking her to her feet. “We are going to have a pleasant dinner, mom. There’s no reason to upset our guest, is there?” 

Wiping away her tears with shaking hands, her mother nodded. 

Sam happily turned away, skipping to the front door and opening it. Brodie stood on the other side, dressed in a blue, button-down shirt and black slacks. 

“Aw, you didn’t have to dress up for me,” Sam said, her smile widening.  

Brodie shifted nervously. “I . . . I wanted to.” 

“Well, come inside.” Sam stepped to the side, gesturing for him to enter. 

They walked together into the dining room, where Sam’s mother set a series of food-filled dishes. The ceramic containers rattled against the table as they made contact, and Sam shot her mother a sharp look.  

“The turkey needs a few more minutes,” her mother said, staring at Brodie. “Do you want me to show you where the bathroom is so you can wash your hands?” 

Brodie took a step forward, but Sam placed her hand on his shoulder. “He’s fine on his own. It’s just down the hall.” 

Nodding, Brodie left the dining room, turning the corner toward the bathroom. The moment he was out of earshot, Sam’s smile fell. “Mom, were you trying to warn the boy?” 

“No. No. Of course not,” her mother shakily responded. 

Sam’s smile returned. “I didn’t think so.” 

Brodie re-entered the dining room, taking a seat. “Gosh, I’m starving.” 

“Me too,” Sam said, making eye contact with her mother. 

“So, Brodie,” her mother interjected, “what kind of food would you like? We have corn, broccoli, mashed potatoes . . .” 

“Honestly, I’d love a little bit of everything,” he answered. 

Sam eyed the boy, her mouth watering. “Same here, mom.” 

In the kitchen, the over timer went off, buzzing throughout the house. 

“Okay, I can’t do this,” her mom whispered. 

“Can’t do what?” Brodie asked, concern washing across his face. 

“Get out,” the woman murmured. “That isn’t Sam. Not anymore.” 

Mom,” Sam hissed through gritted teeth, “don’t make jokes like that.” 

Reaching into her apron, her mother revealed a snub-nosed revolver, aiming it at Sam. “Brodie, it’s no joke. Leave before she kills you. Or worse.” 

Sam stood from the table. “That’s enough, mom.” 

“You’re not my daughter!” the woman cried over the oven timer, squeezing the trigger. 

The muzzle of the weapon flashed, and a sharp crack filled the room. Brodie flinched, diving to the ground as a bullet struck Sam in the center of her chest. The force of the projectile staggered the girl as it tore a hole through her body. She heard black matter splatter on the floor behind her, wriggling. 

“What is that?” Brodie yelped, staring at the ground. 

Sam calmly turned around, watching as a dozen black, golf-ball-sized spiders regained their composure, skittering toward the girl. They crawled their way up her leg, entering the hole in her chest until amorphous blackness filled it. Returning her attention to the gun-wielding woman, she smiled, a real smile this time. 

“You should’ve aimed at my head.” 

She grabbed the dining room table and shoved it forward effortlessly, the edge striking the woman and knocking her backwards into the kitchen. The gun clattered to the floor. 

Brodie jumped up and sprinted past Sam, toward the front door. In the background, the oven timer still droned. 

Sam followed him at a slow, steady pace, rounding the corner to reveal the front door covered with a swarming mass of black spiders. Brodie recoiled away from it, crying out in disgust, and turned around, fleeing further into the house. Sam’s real smile grew wider. 

Redirecting her pace back into the kitchen, she reached the former mother as she rose to her feet. Before the woman could react, Sam took her head in her hands and twisted, snapping her neck. As her attacker fell lifelessly to the floor, Sam hummed cheerfully. 

“Help! Someone!” she heard Brodie cry over the oven timer. 

Humming louder, Sam skipped through the house, hunting for the boy. Doors opening and closing alerted her to his location as he sought for an exit or a place to hide. She passed the threshold of the main hallway just in time to see him reach for the basement door. He twisted the knob, throwing it open. 

“Oh my God,” he squeaked, stumbling away from the wriggling darkness enveloping the basement. Sam had reached him, however, and she grabbed him by the waist, throwing him inside. 

Brodie flew into blackness, but was suddenly arrested by thick, white threads. Through the web, Sam saw billions of her babies quivering with excitement, filling the floor, walls, and ceiling. At the foot of the steps, a man and a boy lay wrapped up in white cocoons, also covered in the golf-ball-sized spiders that nibbled at their fleshy extremities. 

Struggling against the web, Brodie twisted around, wrapping himself tighter as he faced away from the basement and toward Sam. “What are you?” 

“Me?” Sam grinned her real grin. “I’m you. Or, I will be. Just as soon as we hollow you out.” 

As she spoke, she felt eight long, thick spider legs sprout from her neck, tickling her shoulders. The legs applied pressure to her body, separating her head from it. The world grew taller as she landed on the floor, slowly crawling toward Brodie. Behind her, the rest of Sam’s corpse collapsed, and thousands of black spiders hurriedly skittered away from the neck stump. 

“Please. Please,” Brodie begged, his screaming incoherent over the oven timer. 

The thing inside Sam’s head looked at a nearby hanging wall clock and smiled, the human flesh falling away to reveal the monstrosity underneath. 

“Eight o’clock. Dinner time.” 


One Missed Step 

Clark closed his eyes as he took his first step onto the escalator. The shopping mall flooded him with overwhelming sensations, attacking him from all sides. The loud chatter of other patrons almost drowned out the distant melody of the food court carousel. Pizza and pretzels and chicken and cookies wafted into his nostrils. And now, beneath his feet, the world gently rumbled. 

Clark groaned. He hated escalators. 

Opening his eyes, he looked around, realizing that he’d only descended the first five of about fifty steps. It was going so, so slow, an eternal march that left him frozen between moments. Ahead, at the end of this ride, waited his mother and her new boyfriend. As much as he hated standing on escalators, the thought of meeting this new person made him even more anxious. Regardless, he worried about being late, and checked the watch on his wrist. 

“Eleven-eleven,” he muttered. “Almost time.” 

Lowering his head, he saw that he’d descended maybe only five more steps, and that he seemed to be alone on his journey. He glanced over his shoulder and confirmed his suspicion. It was odd, considering how busy the mall seemed to be today, that he’d have such a stretch of emptiness between himself and other people. 

He hummed a little tune to himself, not sure where it came from at first. Then he realized it was the chorus to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a song he’d picked up from his mother’s obsession with the musician. 

I’m starting with the man in the mirror; I’m asking him to change his ways . . . 

The steps below shuddered, and so did Clark. What was wrong with this contraption? 

He placed his elbow on the moving handrail to steady himself. Shifting his feet, he felt a gentle pull, and glanced down to see one of his shoes was untied. His eyes drifted to the escalator’s exodus. Only a dozen steps away from the bottom, now. He’d wait until he was on stable ground before tying his shoe. 

Movement caught the corner of his eye, and he turned to see two older women traveling up the parallel escalator, rising above him. He followed them with his eyes for a few seconds, but they seemed to ignore him, engaged in their own conversation. 

The stairs curved a little now, announcing that Clark had reached the bottom. Turning away from the two women, he took a step forward, but something halted his progress. He tried moving again, but his foot caught against something, pulling him back toward the escalator. Looking down, he realized the problem: The crack where the escalator steps slipped underground had caught his loose shoelace, and was actively swallowing it. 

Panic ignited in Clark’s chest, and he struggled, trying to free the shoelace. A low, green light ignited from within the crack, flickering hungrily. He tried to pull his foot from the captured shoe, but before he could, he felt his toes slip into the tight space. 

“No!” he cried. “Oh God, oh God, someone, please help!” 

Above him, he saw the two older women turn around, startled, their tight grey curls bouncing atop their heads. Eyes widening, they hurried down the up-escalator, hindered by its oppositional steps. As they moved, Clark felt the green-lit crack swallow the rest of his foot, pulling him to the ground. 

On the ground floor, he saw a security guard rush toward him, muttering something into his walkie-talkie. He reached Clark at the same time as the two women, and six hands grabbed at his arms and torso. By the time they began pulling, Clark was up to his knee inside the escalator crack, his free leg curled up onto the ground to provide better leverage against the machine. 

Surprisingly, though, through the panic and fear, Clark felt no pain. Inch by inch, as his body was ingested by the green light, it went tingling and numb, as if it had simply fallen asleep. Similarly, he felt very little pressure, and saw no blood or sign of injury. 

Still, he couldn’t pull away. 

“It’s okay, kid,” the guard gasped as he struggled against the escalator. “You’ll be okay. Johnson, where is the emergency off switch?” 

“It’s . . . it’s not working,” a voice crackled through his walkie-talkie. “It isn’t shutting off.” 

The green light grew brighter as it finished consuming Clark’s leg, turning his body sideways and nibbling at his rib cage. His elbow caught in the crack, and now his arm became trapped, swallowing him width-wise at a slight angle. He squealed, the pitch of his voice piercing his own ears, as the light overtook his face and his body went numb. 

________________ 

The ground rumbled beneath Clark’s feet, and he opened his eyes. Somehow, he found himself standing again, his feet balanced on the step of a slowly-rising escalator. Over his shoulder, he saw rows of storefronts on the first floor. Storefronts that he could swear had previously been located on the second floor. 

In the distance, windows leading outside flickered, the yellow sunlight tinged green for a moment. 

Clark continued rising, trying to clear his head. Wasn’t he going down before? Actually, wasn’t he in trouble? Did he imagine the entire moment? 

Closely examining his arms and legs, Clark saw no scrapes, bruises, or other injuries that would indicate the occurrence of such an incident. Below him, he saw no sign of the security guard, or even any damage to the escalator itself. In fact, his shoe was still tied. 

Just his imagination, then. 

But why was he going up, now? 

The escalator parallel to his own announced the arrival of two older, grey-haired women. They paused in their conversation to glance at Clark, tilting their heads, before returning their attention to each other. He rubbed his temples, trying to figure out where he was supposed to go. At this point, he was maybe ten steps into a fifty-step journey. 

Ahead, he began to smell food, and the tinkling music of the carousel drifted into his ears. This time, though, the sound was different. The song was familiar. 

I’m starting with the man in the mirror; I’m asking him to change his ways . . . 

The two older women were closer now, and Clark peeked at them again, frowning. 

Their faces were . . . different. 

Rather than the round, wrinkled faces Clark remembered, the two women’s features were sharper; almost unnaturally so, as if their faces contained more bones than they were supposed to. The once-leathery skin seemed almost bleached white, and their noses were flatter against their face. Their new appearances could almost be described as skeletal, if it weren’t for their wide mouths and thin, bright-red lips.  

Rubbing his eyes, Clark shifted nervously to the other side of the escalator stairwell. The women passed him at about the halfway point, and as they did, they both turned to him simultaneously, glaring at him with beady, black eyes. 

“You shouldn’t be here,” one of them hissed. 

The sunlit windows flickered green again. 

“Where?” Clark squeaked. “The mall? Where am I?” 

The other woman smiled widely. “You’re in The Underneath now.” 

Then they passed out of earshot, drifting down to the bottom of their escalator.  

Shuddering, Clark wrapped his arms around his chest, surveying the mall as he inched closer to the top of the escalator. The patrons continued on their regular shopping journeys, but every few seconds, some of them would glance up at him, quickly looking away as they saw him staring at them.  

“What is this?” Clark muttered to himself. 

His head breached the escalator’s line of sight, and he quickly scanned the second floor. As he suspected, the food court and shops that were previously on the first floor had migrated to this one. Shoppers and diner looked up from their tasks, peering at him, before returning to their food or merchandise.  

All the while, “Man in the Mirror” trickled from the carousel. 

In the corner of this eye, Clark saw the security guard from before – no, not quite the same as before – rush toward him from the right, speaking into a bizarre device he’d never seen. On the left, he saw a more familiar face approaching. 

“Mom?” he asked. 

His mother grimaced, her face pale and bony and red-lipped. “Grab him. He’s not supposed to see this.” 

Clark’s heart pounded in his chest, and he spun on his heels, stumbling down the up-escalator. The inverse steps pulled at his feet, but he resolved to move faster, to escape the Underneath People. One foot crossed in front of the other as he struggled to descend, and then he was falling, tumbling down the oppositional staircase. 

Above him, too close for comfort, resounded two pairs of footsteps. He struggled to his knees, gasping for air, and crawled toward the first floor of the mall, the ascending escalator beneath his body cramping his muscles. As he saw the windows outside flickered green a third time, strong hands grabbed him by his shoulders.  

“What do we do?” Clark heard the security guard ask the Underneath version of his mother. 

“We return him,” she replied. 

They dragged him up the escalator steps, his body thudding against the aluminum. He struggled, lashing out, but they were strong, too strong. Stronger than anyone he’d ever met. 

As they approached the top, the two Underneath People slammed him onto his back, the security guard grabbing the palms of his hands. 

“Hold him down until he begins to cross back over,” The Underneath Mother said. 

Realization dawning on him, Clark looked up, where the green-lit crack stared back, continuously swallowing the ground in front of it. “No! Don’t put me back in that!” 

He felt his fingers slip into the crack, but this time, it pinched him, the industrial motors squeezing the digits. Before he could react, he felt skin break, and bones ground beneath metal. Shrill cries left his mouth, but he was hardly aware of them, enveloped in pain and panic.  

The escalator began to grumble and screech as it sucked up Clark’s flesh, and warm blood sprayed down his wrists. As the steps continued to move, they fed his arms into the crack, bending them back until the bones in his forearms snapped in half. A crowd of Underneath People gathered around him now, passively watching. 

“He isn’t going back the same way,” one of the older ladies commented. 

The security guard shook his head. “No, it doesn’t always work the same way. That’s why we’re usually safe from his kind.” 

As they chatted, Clark felt the crack of the escalator nibble at his hair, jerking his head back. He didn’t care anymore, though; with this much pain, blackness was already fringing around the edges of his vision, and he knew he’d be unconscious soon . . . and much less, shortly after. 

Strangely, as metal touched his scalp and he felt the first crack in his skull, the last thing he thought about was his mother, and her new boyfriend. Coming back out the other side, like this? Why, that’ll be an awful first impression. 


Misplaced Toys 

“Alpha Squad, move into position,” Sable whispered in a commanding voice, shifting four of her tiny green Army men figures along her wooden bedroom floor. Reaching out with her other hand, she brought her plush bear closer to the figures. “Oh no, the Aurora Bear-ealis is approaching! Quick, meet up with Delta Squad!” 

She moved her Alpha Squad figures away from the toy bear, merging them with four other green Army men. Beyond her bedroom, she heard her mother and father moving more of their holiday decoration boxes through the main hallway. The telltale squeak of the attic door being lowered from the ceiling tickled Sable’s ears, and she cringed. 

“Hey, Sable,” her mom called from the attic entrance. “You’re a part of this move, too. Please come help us carry these boxes.” 

“Just a second!” Sable yelled back, turning to her toys. “Okay, Bazooka Jim. You’re up.” 

She aimed a bazooka-wielding figure at the bear, making whooshing sounds with her mouth. As she knocked over the stuffed animal, the whoosh became a crackling explosion, followed by defeated growls.  

“Good job, Bazooka Jim,” she whispered. “You saved us once again.” 

Standing up from the imaginary carnage, Sable wandered into the hallway, almost colliding with her dad, whose arms were filled with boxes. 

“Hey, Sable!” he laughed. “Watch out; I can hardly see.” 

Her mother appeared nearby, gesturing at the ladder to the attic. “Grab a box and get up there, little missy.” 

Sable twirled her fingers nervously. “Do I . . . have to go up there?” 

Her mother followed her gaze up to the rectangular hole in the ceiling. “Look, I know moving to a new place can be scary. But this house will be a good thing. I promise.” 

“It’s not that,” Sable murmured. “I didn’t like our old attic either. They’re scary and dangerous.” 

Up in the attic, she heard her father laugh. “Honey, just let her unpack her own stuff. I got this.” 

Sable looked at her mother, nodding eagerly. 

Her mother sighed. “Fine. Take your–” 

“Hold up,” her father interrupted. “I thought you didn’t like it up here?” 

“I don’t want to find out,” Sable replied. 

“Well, then how did Bazooka Jim end up here?” he pressed. 

He appeared in the attic entrance, waving the little green Army man figure in his hand. 

“I . . . I didn’t put him there!” Sable stuttered. “I was just playing with him in my room.” 

She turned and walked back into her bedroom, hunting for her favorite toy, but he was nowhere to be found.  

“No, it’s definitely Jim,” her father called. “It’s still got your name written on the bottom.” 

“I don’t understand,” Sable insisted. “I’ve never been up there.” 

She poked her head into the hallway, eyeing her father anxiously. “Something else put him up there.” 

“So, what, there’s some kind of creature in the attic now? And it wants your toys?” her mother chuckled. 

Her father joined in. “Well, there’s no Bigfoot up here now.” 

Sable hesitantly took Bazooka Jim from her father’s hand, slipping the figure into her pocket. Sighing, she grabbed one of her clothes boxes, carrying it into her room. 

________________ 

A few hours later, as the sun began to set outside, Sable found herself running out of boxes to unpack, and her attention strayed back to her green Army figures. At first, her gaze swept across the entire group, but when it reached Bazooka Jim, it stopped. 

“How did you get up there, Jim?” she whispered. 

A quick, rough sound, like crumpling paper, whispered across the wooden floor on the other side of her bed. She jerked her head in its direction, then at her bedroom doorway, through which she heard the faint chatter of the living room television.  

“Hello?” she said, creeping around the bed. At the last second, she pounced to the other side, trying to catch the culprit of the faint noise. Instead of a bug or mouse, like she expected, she only saw a tiny, triangular piece of glass. Sable moved closer to the object, examining it more closely. 

No, not just glass. A bit of mirror. 

Sable crouched and retrieved the broken piece of mirror, slipping it in her pocket. 

“A mystery,” she announced, turning to her Army figures. “Whose mirror does this belong to?” 

She grabbed two of the little green figures: Lookout Louie, who stood pointing forward with binoculars in hand, and Sniper Steve, who lay prone, peering through a long, tripod-mounted rifle. 

“You two will watch my back while we explore,” she said in her most commanding voice. 

Together, Sable, Louie and Steve tip-toed out of the bedroom, the former sliding her back along the wall to avoid the imaginary security cameras. Sprinting down the hall, she turned at the last moment, tumbling into the hallway bathroom. Still on the floor, she used her foot to slowly swing the bathroom door closed. 

Sable jumped to her feet, flicking on the light switch, and placed Lookout Louie and Sniper Steve on the sink counter. “Keep an eye out, would ya?” 

She turned to the bathroom mirror, running her eyes along the surface. No cracks, no chips. 

Something scratched at the inside of the bathtub, drawing her attention to the closed shower curtain. Her heart skipped a beat, but she quickly recovered, aiming Sniper Steve at the curtains. 

“If something comes at me, you take it out, okay?” she whispered to the little green Army figure. 

Creeping across the bathroom, she reached up, ripping the shower curtain to the side. Something retreated into the drain, but it moved too quickly for Sable to make out anything other than the color purple. The rest of the bathtub seemed otherwise untouched. 

“Something purple,” Sable said to herself. “Okay.” 

She retrieved Louie and Steve, edging out of the bathroom. Slipping further away from the living room where her parents rested, she reached their bedroom. Crouching, she set Lookout Louie on the floor, aiming him at the living room. Satisfied, Sable pocketed Sniper Steve, creaking open her parents’ bedroom door and sneaking inside. 

The room was an absolute mess, with cattycornered furniture and half-unpacked boxes strewn across the floor. Sable carefully stepped around the chaos, imagining them to be deadly landmines. Ahead, the boxes shuffled around, as if a shark lurked beneath the cardboard, its fin disturbing the debris. 

“I see you,” Sable whispered to the thing beneath the boxes, placing Sniper Steve on the nearby dresser. “Steve, I’m trusting you. Keep one in the chamber.” 

With that, she ran and jumped on her parents’ mattress, swaying up and down on the squishy springs. Crouching, she leapt above the sea of boxes, planting her feet on top the nearby nightstand. Sable turned toward her mother’s vanity, soaring through the air a third time. This time, she barely stuck the landing, teetering back and forth on the lip of the vanity’s stool. After a moment, she steadied herself, only turning to stick her tongue out at the creature beneath the boxes. 

Returning her attention to the vanity’s mounted mirror, Sable pulled the glass clue from her pocket, holding it up. The vanity mirror didn’t seem to be missing any cracks, but moreover, it was also clean and polished. The piece of mirror that Sable had discovered was old, dusty and a little yellowed. 

Dismayed, Sable carefully made her way back out of her parents’ bedroom, collecting Sniper Steve and Lookout Louie along the way. She trotted back to her room, sighing dejectedly, and rounded the corner to flop onto her bed. 

Instead, she walked in on a complete mess, her tiny green Army figures strewn haphazardly across the floor. Nothing seemed broken, but she knew that she’d left them all in their proper containers before she went on her mirror mission. 

But why would the purple creature be rummaging through her stuff? 

Her face went white. “Bazooka Jim?” 

She dropped to her knees, searching through the plastic carnage, but Bazooka Jim was nowhere to be found. 

Sable clenched her jaw. The attic. 

She rushed to the living room. “Dad! I need your help!” 

As she reached the couch, she saw her mother and father fast asleep, cuddle together. She tugged at her father’s sleeve. “Dad. Dad. Wake up. I need you to go to the attic.” 

He murmured something unintelligible before returning to his slumber. 

Sable sighed. It was up to her now. 

She marched back into her bedroom, collecting her Alpha Squad figures. Pocketing them, she moved into the hallway, jumping up and grabbing the rope to pull the attic door down. As the ladder unfolded, she shivered, heart pounding in her chest. She was terrified, almost to tears, but Bazooka Jim needed her help. 

Slowly, methodically, Sable ascended the attic ladder, hands shaking as they grasped each step. The dark rectangle loomed ahead, threatening to swallow her whole. Her head reached the top of the ladder, and she peeked into the blackness, looking around.  

The hallway light filtered up through the attic entrance, partially illuminating the cramped space. Sable saw some of her family’s holiday decorations, along with other miscellaneous tools and furniture. Further back, though, against the walls, stood sheet-covered objects, remnants of the house’s previous owners. 

Sable lifted herself into the attic, crawling to her feet. Retrieving her Alpha Squad figures, she aligned them around the attic entrance, their various weapons the four corners of the attic space. 

“Keep me safe until I get out,” she whispered, turning to the collage of family history that stood before her. 

A quick, rough sound, like crumpling paper, caught her attention, drawing her to a particularly dusty corner. She tip-toed toward the sound, taking desperate gulps to soothe her dry mouth. Turning sideways, she squeezed past her family’s boxes of holiday decorations, entering a tiny space with three sheet-covered pieces of furniture. 

Reaching to the left with a trembling hand, Sable ripped away the first sheet, revealing an old grandfather clock. The grime-covered glass face partially obscured the hour and minute hand, frozen at 11:11.  

Turning to the object on the right, she removed the second sheet, exposing a wooden rocking horse. The attic floor creaked beneath the weight of the toy as it leaned back and forth, kicking up dust. Coughing, Sable threw the sheet back on top of the horse, covering up the cloud. 

Another rustle, this time near the base of the middle, still-covered object. This object stood a few feet taller than Sable, and stretched twice her width. Pulse pounding, she clutched at the final sheet, ripping it away. Beneath the covering stood an ornate, full-length mirror, its reflective glass filled with chips and cracks that revealed splintered wood beneath. One triangular gap caught Sable’s eyes, and she removed the piece of mirror from her pocket, matching it.  

Something touched her foot, and she yelped, jumping back. Looking down, Sable saw Bazooka Jim standing on the attic floor, aiming the little plastic weapon of his namesake at the mirror. 

“Jim!” she exclaimed, crouching to the floor. “How did you–” 

The mirror rattled, interrupting her. 

From between the cracks in the glass flickered a dim green light, illuminating the dark attic corner. The old wood frame creaked, and Sable heard more rustling, though now it came with a faint echo. The mirror bulged a little, as if something on the other side were trying to push its way to freedom. 

Then the glowing cracks stretched apart, and a dozen slimy, purple tentacles wriggled from within, stretching toward Sable’s face. Sable screamed, her voice muffled by the surrounding boxes and furniture. Stumbling away, she accidentally kicked Bazooka Jim, and one of the tentacles snatched him out of the air, pulling him back behind the mirror to . . . somewhere else. 

“Get away!” Sable yelled, but the tentacles were relentless, slithering in wide arcs to ensnare the girl. The mirror groaned again, as if whatever the tentacles were attached to was threatening to rip it apart from the other side. 

Sable turned to run, shoving the holiday decoration boxes to the side, but one of the tentacles wrapped around her ankle, pulling her to the floor. From this angle, she could barely make out her Alpha Squad figures, all lifeless and still by the attic’s entrance. Then, the tentacle pulled at her, dragging her across the wood.  

They can’t help me this time, Sable thought. I’m on my own. 

The mirror shuddered hungrily as Sable drew closer to it, the other tentacles wriggling in anticipation. Sable felt a sharp pain, and glanced at her hand, where the piece of mirror bit into her skin. As blood ran from her palm, she gripped the shard between her thumb and forefinger, raising her arm. Her foot was only inches from the mirror now. 

With as much force as she could muster, Sable brought the sharp edge of the broken glass down onto the tentacle. 

The creature, whatever it was, screeched from behind the flickering green light, its tone so shrill and so piercing that Sable questioned whether she heard anything at all. The tentacle around her ankle released her, retreating with the others back beneath the glass. As they disappeared, the green light faded. 

This is it, Sable realized. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew. The door’s closed. I have to move fast. 

Without a second thought, she picked up the sheet-covered rocking horse and swung it into the mirror, shattering it. Shards of reflective glass sprayed everywhere, prickling her skin and ricocheting off the boxes and furniture that filled the attic space. The old wooden frame cracked like a falling tree branch, falling back against the attic wall and crumbling to pieces. 

Sable released the rocking horse, chest heaving. “Bazooka Jim?” 

She rushed to the mirror’s remain, sorting through the glass shards and wooden splinters. No green plastic emerged, however. 

She sat back, distraught. 

A good soldier died today, she thought. But he kept me safe.  

Her eyes shifted to the Alpha Squad, still perched by the attic entrance. And he won’t die for nothing. 

________________ 

The next night, Sable’s parents tucked her into bed. 

“Sable, are you sure you don’t want to tell us what happened to your hand?” her father asked, gesturing to her bandaged palm. 

She shook her head. “It’s really okay. Bazooka Jim and I took care of it.”  

Her father sighed, and her mother looked around the bedroom. “Where are your Army toys, anyway?” 

Sable smiled. “They’re on a secret mission. I’ll play with them again someday.” 

She closed her eyes, allowing her mind to drift to the attic above her head. In the corner, surrounding the remains of the still-dormant mirror, stood a battalion of tiny green men, forever poised to keep Sable safe. 


Pool Party 

“Oh, come on,” Alyssa’s mother scolded her. “I haven’t seen my friends in years. You can spend a little time with their kids while we catch up.” 

Gritting her teeth, Alyssa sunk into the backseat of the car, crossing her arms. “I don’t know these kids. And there’s so many of them. Why do you have, like, twenty friends?” 

Her mother shook her head. “You’ll appreciate having people around when you’re older.” 

Doubt it, Alyssa silently retorted. 

She gazed out the windows as palm trees passed by, the structures obviously planted with evenness and rigidity in mind. As they traveled down the road, the houses grew bigger, more opulent. Eventually, they turned into the driveway of one such home, idling to a stop. 

“Wow, can you believe this house?” Alyssa’s mom exclaimed. 

Alyssa rolled her eyes. “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” 

The massive, three-story building hosted a sharp-edged, cubic design with glass walls encasing most of the top floor. Through the windows, Alyssa could see a dozen children around her age running around in swimwear. She cringed. 

“I’m not going to have to go swimming with them, am I?” she asked. 

Her mother laughed. “Well, it is a pool party. What’s the point of avoiding the pool?” 

Alyssa huffed, grabbed her bag, and exited the car, waiting for her mother to do the same. Together, they walked up the driveway, pressing the doorbell button. Beethoven’s “Für Elise” echoed throughout the interior, audible even from the outside. Alyssa and her mother traded a long glance as the song played. 

After about thirty seconds of listening to classical music, a tall, thin, blonde woman with unnaturally tanned skin opened the door in a pink, two-piece swimsuit. When she saw Alyssa’s mother, she grinned, baring bleach-white teeth. 

“Karen!” the woman exclaimed, embracing Alyssa’s mother in a tight hug. They stayed that way for a moment before pulling away. 

“Hey, Sheryl,” Alyssa’s mother responded, gesturing to Alyssa. “This is my daughter, Alyssa.” 

Sheryl turned to gush at Alyssa, but her voice faded away as the echoing chaos of other children’s laughter and screams reached the girl’s ears. She felt her heart beat faster, her mouth drying out. Wiping sweaty hands on her blouse, Alyssa glanced up at the tanned woman. 

“I’m so sorry. What did you ask me?” 

Sheryl’s eyes flickered to Alyssa’s mother, then back to her. “I was just wondering how old you were. My daughters are seven and eight, but I have a son who’s fourteen. Would that be closer to your age?” 

“Yes,” Alyssa sighed. “I’m twelve.” 

Sheryl chuckled, glancing at Alyssa’s mother. “They grow up so fast. Come on in.” 

Lowering her head, Alyssa trudged after her mother, entering the house. By this point, most of the other children had vacated the interior, opting to return to the backyard swimming pool. Alyssa’s mother nudged her. 

“Go play with them, honey.” 

Alyssa felt her face grow red. “I don’t want to.”  

Sheryl turned to two newcomers. “Alyssa, sweetheart, we’re going to be having adults-only time. I promise, the other kids are friendly.” 

Grumbling, Alyssa stomped away, sliding open the glass door to the backyard. She was immediately bombarded with the sounds of shouting and laughter, and felt her adrenaline spike. The other children ran around the yard, jumping and splashing in the pool. She unfolded a pool chair and laid it out as far from the commotion as she possible could. 

It didn’t take long, though, before a lanky, acne-covered boy in swim trunks approached her, grinning awkwardly. “H- hey.” 

Alyssa looked at him for a second, then closed her eyes, lying back in the pool chair. “Hey.” 

“I saw you were still wearing regular clothes. Did you not want to come swim with us?” 

Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t know you.” 

“Oh, heh. Sorry.” he extended his hand awkwardly. “I’m Ben.” 

She nodded. “Alyssa. I don’t want to swim. Not with all the other people.” 

“It’s okay, though,” Ben insisted. “It’s not too deep. And we can clear a space so you feel more comfortable.” 

Alissa peered warily at the pool. “I don’t know. I just really don’t like crowds.” 

“Come on,” Ben said, extending his hand. “No one really wants to be here, but we’re making the best of it. Come have fun with us.” 

Alyssa sighed. “Okay. But just for a few minutes.” 

She sat up from the pool chair, walking back into the house to change into her swimwear. After a few minutes, she returned in a navy-blue one-piece. 

“Make way,” Ben said, stern but not loud. “Give her some room.” 

The children swam away from him as he entered the pool, Alyssa close behind. They waded out until the water was up to their necks, shivering as their bodies adjusted from the hot sun to the lukewarm water. 

Alyssa held her nose, took a deep breath, and dunked her head beneath the water, surrounding herself with temporary silence. The noise, the stares, the heat, it all faded away in those few moments of underwater bliss. She smiled to herself, resurfacing only once her lungs began to ache. As she returned to the surface, she opened her eyes, and in the blurry calm, she thought she saw a flickering dim, green light. 

Then she was back in the open air. 

The pool, however, had grown silent.  

Alyssa cleared her eyes, looking around. The children surrounded her in the pool now, staring, knowing smiles plastered across their faces. Ben swam up next to her, and she though she saw surgical scars running behind his ear, up into his hair.  

“We need to hurry,” Ben said to the other children, his voice colder than before. “It’s almost time for it to open.” 

“For what to open?” Alyssa asked, unease settling in her stomach. 

Ben turned to her, apathy glazed across his eyes. “Sorry about this.” 

Grabbing Alyssa by the shoulders, he thrust her body underwater. 

Panicking, Alyssa tried to kick, to pull away, but she couldn’t escape the boy’s grasp. Despite his lean frame, he was inhumanly strong. Alyssa screamed for help, forcing air bubbles from her mouth, but through the haze, she saw the other children standing still, watching her assault. 

She also saw a flickering dim, green light again. 

A few seconds later, she felt Ben release her, and she hurried back to the pool’s surface. “Help! Help!” 

No response from the house. 

She spun to face Ben. “Stay away from me.” 

He ignored her, his face twisted with curiosity, as he waded over to one of the rectangular pool filters built into the side of the pool. “That’s not supposed to be there.” 

Following his gaze, Alyssa saw a pink, baseball-sized jellyfish floating near the filter, bobbing up and down with the disturbed water. The other children murmured to each other, interest and concern seemingly distracting them from Alyssa. 

Suddenly, a second jellyfish emerged, twice as big as the first, this one light green. 

Cries of surprise from behind Alyssa drew her attention to a third jellyfish, purple this time, floating out of a different filter. The children began to back away from the sides of the pool, crowding around Alyssa, suffocating her as more jellyfish drifted into the pool from the filters, surrounding them. 

“They were waiting for us,” one of the children said to Ben, who grimaced in response. “We’re not going to be able to get her over there right now.” 

The jellyfish began to sink to the bottom of the pool, their colors blurring together beneath the water. The moment they touched the concrete, Ben gestured to the other children. “Let’s get out. Slowly.” 

One of the children closest to the pool stairs lifted her legs, gently gliding across the surface of the water. The moment she passed above the nearest jellyfish, it pushed itself from the bottom of the pool, rocketing upwards. With a soft plop, it breached the surface of the water with enough force to launch into the air, like a beach ball that had been submerged and then released. The jellyfish struck the girl in the center of her face, its body covering her eyes, nose and mouth while its dangling stingers wrapped around her head like a net. 

The girl clawed at her face, her screams muffled by the jellyfish’s underbelly. Through the creature’s translucent body, Alyssa saw the girl’s eyes widen with terror. The attacked girl began to writhe, seemingly in pain, as she continued to try to pull the jellyfish off her face. Muffled cries formed repeating words, and Alyssa strained to make them out. 

“It’s stinging me!Alyssa finally heard. “Oh God, it’s stinging me!” 

Plop. 

Another jellyfish shot upwards from the bottom of the pool, this time flying above everyone’s heads. The angle at which it fell landed it squarely on the face at a young boy on the other edge of the pool. The moment it connected, the stingers wrapped around his head, and be began to struggle.  

Plop. Plop. Plop. 

One by one, the other jellyfish followed suit, jettisoning out of the pool and onto the faces of the children surrounding Alyssa. Small, gelatinous bodies flew left and right, and Alyssa pushed away from the children as they fell, squirming, into the water. Her shoulder brushed against a distended child floating face-down and still in the pool, and she shuddered. 

Suddenly, a jellyfish struck the top of her head, and she screamed. It did not, however, latch onto her, opting instead to bounce harmlessly away and sink back into the water. Alyssa looked around, confused, at the other children, who were covered in the creatures. 

Why aren’t they attacking me? she wondered. 

Whatever the reason, Alyssa was grateful to avoid such a grisly end. 

She reached the stairs, and decided to scream again. “Mom! Help!” 

Something moved beyond the glass door, but no one came to her rescue. 

“Mom! There’s-”  

Someone grabbed her wrist, yanking her back toward the pool. She turned to see Ben, swollen and clearly in tremendous pain, his chest and arms covered in multicolored jellyfish. 

“You’re not going anywhere,” Ben snarled. “We have a job to-” 

He jerked below the water, pulled by his legs back toward the center of the pool. As he released Alyssa, she saw what had attacked him: A gigantic blue man-o’-war, at least a third of the pool’s size, its ten-foot stingers tangled around Ben’s feet. Alyssa watched Ben struggle for a moment before growing still, his lifeless eyes staring up from the bottom of the pool. 

As Ben sank, Alyssa realized that, for the first time since she’d arrived, the backyard was completely quiet. Despite the horror she’d witnessed, she felt relief, the weight of other people off her shoulders. Still, she was frightened, confused, and she needed to get help. She turned to call for her mother again, but realized that the woman was already standing behind the glass door, staring from within the house. 

“M- mom?” Alyssa stammered. 

Her mother grinned, waving, baring her teeth in the same way that Sheryl had done when she’d answered the door. As Alyssa watched, more adults joined her mother, watching the backyard. 

Something was wrong. 

The woman at the door wasn’t the one she’d come to the pool party with. 

Alyssa glanced back at the pool, where the jellyfish had detached from the floating corpses and were drifting back into the pool filters. The filters began to flicker with a dim, green light, tinting the pool water. The sound of the back door opening attracted Alyssa’s attention to the house again, and she saw the adults entering the backyard, inching toward the pool. 

“Shh, shh, it’s okay,” the thing pretending to be her mother whispered to her. 

The yard was surrounded by a thick fence. The house was filled with sinister imposters. Alyssa couldn’t even drive her mother’s car, even if she reached it. 

No, she had only one option: Follow her new allies. 

Without hesitating another second, Alyssa dove back into the pool, hurrying toward the filters. She was a small girl, but it would still be a tight fit. A solitary pink jellyfish waited by the closest filter, as if beckoning her to join it. The flickering green light drew the girl in, and, as if by instinct, she grabbed the creature, carrying it with her as she dove head-first into the tiny, dark, concrete hole. 

Whatever waited for her on the other side, she hoped she’d be able to at least get a little bit of goddamn peace and quiet. 


The Sleep Police 

The pixelated characters on Lena’s television flickered as she maneuvered the joystick of her game controller, deep in concentration. Beside her sat her best friend, Tina, who seemed visibly frustrated, even from what Lena could make out from the corner of her eye. Smirking, Lena pulled the trigger on her controller, knocking out Tina’s game character and ending the round. Tina huffed, tossing her controller to the ground. 

“This is why I like crafting more,” she muttered. 

Lena laughed. “So, you were saying it was, like, some kind of doll?” 

Tina nodded, making eye contact with her friend. “One of those dolls that comedians use. Vent– Ventri–” 

“Ventriloquist,” Lena corrected. “A ventriloquist’s dummy.” 

“Right,” replied Tina. “It looked a lot like me. And it kept talking to me, but it also seemed like it was waiting for something.” 

“Like the man who broke into your house?” Lena asked. 

Tina shrugged. “I don’t know. But it was really scary.” 

“Oh, grow up,” Lena scoffed. “Both your parents and mine hired a bunch of extra security after what happened. You’ll be safe from a stupid toy.” 

“I guess.” Tina hung her head. 

The bedroom door opened, and Lena’s father walked in with his boyfriend, Paco. 

“Time to wrap things up,” Lena’s father said. “Tina, your mom wants you home so you can get ready for school tomorrow.” 

“Dad!” Lena shot him a glare. “We’re playing a game.” 

Paco cleared his throat. “You girls know that security has been tighter ever since, you know . . .” 

Tina shifted uncomfortably. “It’s okay. I gotta go, Lena.” 

Lena rolled her eyes. “Fine. See you later.” 

As Tina left the bedroom, Lena’s father knelt down, kissing Lena on the forehead. “You get some sleep, too. Turn the game off, clean up, and get ready for school tomorrow. Okay?” 

Sighing, Lena set her controller on the floor. “Yeah, dad. Love you.” 

“Love you, too,” he said, glancing at Paco. “We both do.” 

Paco nodded. 

As Lena began to straighten up her room, the two men left her alone, closing her bedroom door. The moment she heard their footsteps fade down the stairs, she snatched up her controller again, resuming her game. 

________________ 

Hours passed, and Lena felt her eyes grow tired, but she pushed through, her fingers deftly flicking over the controller’s buttons. To her right, the night sky beyond her bedroom window began to lighten, and she glanced at her alarm clock. 

5:12AM. 

“Might as well stay up now,” she said to herself, returning her attention to the television. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Pausing her game, Lena looked around, but saw no movement in her bedroom. Shrugging, she resumed playing. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Lena frowned, setting her controller down and listening more closely. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

A faint sound, like a fingernail tapping against glass. 

Lena whipped her head toward her bedroom window. Only darkness outside, slowly illuminated by the dawn. 

She stood to her feet, slowly approaching the window, and peered through the glass. 

No dolls. No men in balaclavas. Nothing. 

Behind her, the bedroom door creaked open, and her father peeked inside. “Lena? I thought I heard–” 

His eyes drifted to the television, then to the game controller, then to Lena, still in her clothes from last night. 

“Lena,” he sighed, “Did you go to bed, or did you stay up all night?” 

Yawning slightly, Lena rubbed her eyes. “I might have stayed up.” 

“Come on, now,” her father replied, exasperation in his voice. “I need you at your best, Lena.” 

“But I wasn’t tired,” Lena insisted. “I’m still getting good grades, right?” 

“Yes, but . . .” her father pinched the bridge of his nose, taking a deep breath. As he released it, his eyes lit up. “But what about the Sleep Police?” 

“The what?” Lena asked. 

“The Sleep Police. It’s a special division of the police department that keeps track of people who haven’t been sleeping.” 

Lena scoffed. “You’re making that up.” 

“No, no,” her father said, mock sincerity in his face. “If you don’t get enough sleep, the Sleep Police will come get you and take you away to Sleep Jail. No games, no friends, just you in a dark room.” 

Shivering, Lena sat on her bed. “That’s not funny.” 

“I know!” he responded, eyes wide. “I don’t want you to get arrested! Why don’t you just get some proper sleep tonight instead?” 

“Whatever, dad,” Lena grumbled. “Your jokes are terrible.” 

Paco appeared in the doorway, knocking on the wood. “Jim, the VP is on the phone. He wants to talk to you.” 

Lena’s father rolled his eyes. “I’m coming.” 

Reaching over, he patted Lena on the shoulder. “I’ll be working late tonight, and Paco has some things to do, as well. Security will take you to school and back, okay?” 

Frowning, Lena hugged her father. “Do they have to?” 

Paco tapped the man on the shoulder, and he pulled away from his daughter. “Yes. Yes, they do.” 

________________ 

The clock ticked incessantly by as Lena’s math teacher droned on about fractions . . . or something. She was so tired, it was difficult to focus. Picking up her pencil, she lightly tapped on her textbook, trying to maintain a rhythm that she could focus on to stay awake. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Movement caught the corner of her eye, and she glanced out the classroom window to see an old black Sedan with broken side mirrors pull into the parking lot, facing her. In the driver’s, passenger’s, and rear seats sat three men in suits and ties. Their faces, though partially obscured by dark sunglasses, seemed slick and shiny, as if made of flesh-colored plastic. The driver turned off the car’s ignition, and together, the three men seemed to stare directly at Lena. 

“Lena?” her teacher interrupted her. “Can you tell me what one-half plus one-third equals?” 

“Oh. Uh . . .” she squinted at the board, working out the problem. “Three-fifths?” 

“Not quite,” her teacher tisked. “You added the numerator and denominator individually. What you need to do is find a common denominator.” 

Lena blushed. “Ah. I’m sorry.” 

“No worries,” her teacher responded. “Just keep your eyes ahead, okay?” 

Out of the corner of her eye, Lena noticed that the black sedan was now empty. “Actually, may I go use the restroom real quick?” 

“Fine,” her teacher sighed. “But be quick.” 

Lena rushed out of the classroom, making a beeline for the bathroom. 

Who were those men? More of dad’s security? 

Lena shook her head. 

No. We’ve never had security who looked like that before. 

She entered the second stall and sat on the toilet, retrieving her cell phone. She pulled up her messenger app and paused. 

Was this worth texting dad over? 

After a moment, she pursed her lips, pocketing her phone. 

Suddenly, the bathroom door creaked open, and she heard footsteps click across the linoleum. Slow, measured, heavy footsteps, more like an adult’s than a child’s. They echoed off the bathroom walls as they grew closer, and a shadow darkened the cracks in the stall door. Lena held her breath, waiting for the newcomer to pass by, but they continued to stand there. 

Bending down slowly, Lena looked beneath the stall, noting the person’s shoes as large, black dress shoes, definitely an adult’s. Probably a man’s. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

The sound was heavy, like a thick fingertip rapping against the other side of the stall door. 

“H– hello?” Lena stammered. 

Silence. Then . . . 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Hello?” Lena repeated, louder this time. 

The shadow moved, and Lena saw the telltale glisten of an iris peering through the crack in the stall. She quickly became aware of a heavy, stifled breathing. 

“Help!” she yelled. “Somebody help!” 

The figure pulled away from the stall, quickly exiting the bathroom. Lena fastened her clothes and burst from the stall, trembling. A few seconds later, another student rushed into the bathroom. 

“Hey, Lena. You okay?” 

Lena pushed past the student and out of the bathroom, looking both ways down the hallway. 

Empty. 

The other student followed her into the hall. “Did something happen?” 

“I’m . . .” Lena shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Thanks.” 

________________ 

“How was school?” asked John, Lena’s security guard, as they drove away from the building a few hours later. 

Lena lowered her head, slumping into the backseat of the car. “Fine.” 

“Just fine?” he pressed. 

She sighed. “Someone came into the bathroom and was watching me through the stall today. A man, I think.” 

“Wait, what?” John exclaimed, turning away from the steering wheel. “Was it a teacher?” 

Lena shook her head. “I don’t think so. There were some men watching me from the parking lot. They kind of looked like your security people. But . . . different, too.” 

Her eyes were so, so heavy. She was regretting staying up so late last night. 

“Maybe it was the Sleep Police,” she muttered drowsily. 

“The what?” John asked. 

“Nothing,” she responded. “Just something stupid my dad said this morning.” 

“Well, we’re going to talk to him tonight about what happened at school, okay?” John said. 

Lena nodded. “Okay.” 

“In the meantime . . .” he smiled back at her. “Why don’t we pick up some seafood from the grocery store for dinner?” 

Lena grinned excitedly. “Can we get popcorn shrimp?” 

“Of course we can,” John laughed. 

Lena saw a car pull out behind them in the rearview mirror. A black sedan, with broken side mirrors. 

“John!” she exclaimed. “They’re following us!” 

“Who?” John asked, glancing in the rearview mirror. 

Lena turned around to point out the window, but the car was gone. “Oh. I thought I saw the people from my school.” 

“Well, maybe you did,” John consoled her. “But they aren’t there now. Either way, I promise I will keep you safe. Okay?” 

________________ 

After about twenty minutes, they pulled into the grocery store parking lot. Lena hopped out of the car, looking around the flat, asphalt-covered area, but she saw no sign of the black sedan. Grabbing John’s hand, she walked into the grocery store. 

Aisles of food stretched before her, so extensive that they were almost overwhelming. John headed for the seafood section, his long strides forcing Lena to speed up in order to match his pace. They passed the freezer section, and Lena caught a glimpse of frozen French fries. 

“John?” she tugged on the security guard’s sleeve. “Can we have fries, too?” 

“Sure!” he smiled. “But not those.” 

He looked around the mostly empty store. “Go pick out some fresh potatoes, and we’ll bake our own fries. How does that sound?” 

“Sounds great!” Lena answered, releasing his hand. He chuckled as she walked away, toward the produce section. 

As she passed the candy aisle, she caught a glimpse of the cinnamon disc hard candies, one of her favorite treats that her grandmother always gave her when she visited. Pausing, Lena looked around, but saw no one else. Tip-toeing into the aisle, she reached for a small bag of the candy, ready to sneak it into her jacket pocket. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Lena paused, her hand still outstretched. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

A chill ran up her spine as she looked past the bags of candy, where a shadow moved beyond the perforations of the shelving itself. Someone was in the next aisle over, tapping their finger on the shelf. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Squinting, Lena peered through the perforations, trying to see any distinguishing characteristics of the person tapping on the aisle. Suddenly, the shadow moved, and once again she saw the glimmer of an eye looking back at her. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

“John!” she screamed, backing away from the shelves. “John!” 

The shadow swiftly moved away from perforations, and she held her breath, certain they were going to come around into her aisle any second. Instead, John appeared at the end of the aisle, hand on the butt of his holstered pistol. 

“Lena?” he said. “What’s wrong?” 

“They’re here!” she whispered. “They’re in the store!” 

“Where?” John asked. 

Lena pointed at the candy-filled shelving. “The other aisle!” 

He rushed around the aisle, into the next one, and a few seconds of silence passed before he spoke again. “There’s no one here anymore, Lena.” 

She walked around the aisle to join the security guard, grabbing his hand. “Let’s just go home.” 

“What about the–” he stopped at the sight of her tearing eyes. “No problem. You got it, boss.” 

________________ 

10:30PM. 

They returned home, and the evening passed without incident. John and Paco helped Lena cook dinner, settling on grilled chicken and vegetables. As the evening progressed, she began to feel better, especially after John called in additional security guards to stay in the house while they waited for Lena’s father to return home. She even got to play a video game with John for a little while. 

Tap-tap-tap. 

Lena’s ears twitched at the sound, and she set her controller on the floor, a ball of anxiety forming in the pit of her stomach. 

“Did you hear that, John?” 

John nodded, rising to his feet. “It came from downstairs.” 

Together, they walked out to the staircase, descending the steps and joining the collection of security guards who had gathered around the front door.  

“What’s going on, Thompson?” John asked. 

One of the security guards gestured at the door, answering. “We heard some–” 

TAP-TAP-TAP. 

Three sharp, quick knocks boomed against the front door, startling a scream out of Lena. The security guards drew their weapons, assuming strategic positions around the front door. John joined them, calling out. 

“Who’s there? State your name and intentions.” 

Silence. 

Lena tugged at John’s sleeve, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s the Sleep Police. They found me.” 

Then, with a shrill screech, the door ripped from its hinges, exposing them to the night. 

10:42PM. 

Lena saw nothing but darkness beyond the doorway. The street lamps, her porch light, and even the stars themselves seemed to be extinguished. The pitch black was quiet, too; so silent, she could hear her heart thudding in her chest. 

“Fredricks,” John commanded, “take a look.” 

Pistol extended, Fredricks inched forward, poking his head out of the house. He looked to the left, then to the right, keeping the muzzle of his gun between himself and the night. 

10:43PM. 

“Nothing’s out there,” Fredricks said, turning around. His eyes widened as he registered something behind the group. “Davis, your six!” 

Lena swiveled around in time to see a man emerge from the shadows behind Davis. He wore a suit and tie, black gloves, and sunglasses, though the rest of his face seemed to be covered in some kind of flesh-colored plastic. 

The Sleep Police, Lena thought. 

Before they could react, the intruder lifted his arm, revealing an orange boxcutter. He flicked his thumb, ejecting the razor blade from the tip of the tool, and reached around Davis, slicing his throat. Blood spurted from the horizontal wound, but the Sleep Policeman held Davis tight, keeping the dying man between the other guards and himself. 

“Drop him, now!” Fredricks demanded, his gun trembling. 

The other guards moved to circle around the Sleep Policeman and his prey, but the masked figure dragged Davis swiftly backwards, disappearing into the dark corner of the adjacent first-floor hallway. In the distance, Lena could hear Davis’s final gasps as he choked on his own blood. 

10:45PM. 

Paco emerged from the kitchen, looking around. “What happened?” 

Heavy, rapid footsteps approached from Lena’s left, and she saw a second Sleep Policeman barrel through the front doorway, wielding a claw hammer.  Fredricks, who still lingered by the opening, heard him coming, and swiveled to face the man. The Sleep Policeman swung his hammer, connecting with the back of Fredricks’s hand, which emitted a sickening snap. Fredrick screamed and dropped his gun, and the Sleep Policeman kicked it backwards, out into the night. 

The two nearest guards, Thompson and Garcia, opened fire on the second Sleep Policeman, but he deftly rolled beneath their bullets, striking Thompson in the left knee with the hammer. The joint cracked, dropping the guard to the floor, and the Sleep Policeman brought the claw hammer down on his forehead, splitting his skull. 

Before Garcia could adjust his aim, the Sleep Policeman hurled his weapon at the man’s head, colliding it with his nose and bloodying it. Garcia swore, covering his face, and the Sleep Policeman swooped forward, retrieving his fallen hammer and slinging Garcia over his shoulder. Garcia screamed as the masked man carried him into the dining room, out of sight. Lena heard three gunshots, and then Garcia fell silent. 

10:47PM. 

John grabbed Lena’s shoulder, and the girl buried her face in his leg, sobbing. 

“Paco!” John barked, drawing the man over to them. “You, Lena and I are headed to the safe room in the basement. Lena, you and Paco need to stay close to me.” 

He paused for a second, then gestured at one of the other guards. “Sitter, you’re coming, too.” 

Sitter nodded, joining the trio. 

Lena looked over at Fredricks, who still clutched his broken hand. “Are you okay, sir?” 

The guard offered her a pained smile. “I’ll be fine.” 

She saw his eyes drift over to Thompson’s lifeless body, blood leaking across the floor from his fractured skull. 

“Fredricks,” John continued. “You, Miller, Torres, and Robinson are the remainder of our defense. Stay together and sweep the house until you find these intruders. Once Lena and Paco are secure, Sitter and I will join you. However, do not separate. These men are obviously well-trained. Strength in numbers. Got it?” 

Fredricks and the other three guards nodded, collecting themselves before moving into the dining room, where the hammer-wielding Sleep Policeman had disappeared. 

“Why don’t we just leave the house?” Paco asked. “We can go to a hotel or something.” 

John glanced at the broken front door. “They made leaving the house too easy. I think it’s a trap. Besides, even if we get out, they’ll likely follow us wherever we go next. At least we know the layout of this house.” 

Without waiting for Paco’s response, John grabbed Lena’s wrist, moving further into the house. Sitter and Paco scrambled to keep up.  

10:53PM. 

Somewhere outside the house, Lena heard a grinding noise, and the lights flickered and died. She yelped, hanging onto John, but the guard paid her little attention, retrieving a flashlight and holding it in front of him alongside his pistol. Behind Lena, Sitter did the same. 

“Paco, do you have your phone on you?” John asked. 

“Uhhh . . . oh,” Paco stammered. “Yeah. I’ll call the police.” 

“Thank you,” John responded curtly. 

10:54PM. 

While Paco’s phone dialed out, they passed into the guest bedroom, using it as a shortcut toward the basement. Lena heard the call connect, and a tinny voice filled the earpiece. 

“Hello?” Paco whispered. “Hello, we are under attack. There are men in our house. At least two people are already dead. Please–” 

Distant gunfire interrupted him, and Lena turned toward the sound. She counted nine shots before the commotion ceased. Silence rang in her ears, but no voices of celebration or dismay rushed to fill that void. On Paco’s phone, the tinny voice spoke again. 

“Yes, yes,” Paco responded to the operator. “Our address is . . .” 

Movement near the floor caught Lena’s eye, and she glanced down to see a plastic face staring up at her from beneath the bed. Her eyes widened, and her blood ran cold. She opened her mouth to scream. 

“John! There’s a–” 

The Sleep Policeman’s arm lashed out of the darkness, shoving a screwdriver cleanly through Paco’s Achilles tendon. Blood spurted from the wound as Paco shrieked in pain, and the Sleep Policeman retracted the tool, retreating further beneath the bed. 

10:57PM. 

“Sitter, help Paco,” John said. 

Sitter gestured toward the bed. “What about–” 

“The others will deal with it,” John interrupted. “Our priority is their safety.” 

Nodding, Sitter leaned Paco against his shoulder, and together they followed John and Lena out of the guest bedroom. They slowly crept through the house, swinging their flashlight beams in steady arcs, listening for threatening noises. No sound emerged from elsewhere in the house. 

“Where are Mr. Fredricks and the others?” Lena whispered, her voice trembling.  

John shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe still looking for the intruders.” 

They turned the corner, reaching the basement door. 

11:01PM. 

Sitter propped Paco against the wall, scanning the area around them while John creaked the door open, peering down the steps with his flashlight. 

“Looks clear,” John murmured. 

He beckoned for them to follow, swinging the basement door the rest of the way open and descending the staircase. Lena entered the room next, followed by Sitter and Paco, the former still supporting the weight of the latter. As she made her way down the stairs, Lena’s eyes began to adjust to the darkness, but strange shapes surrounded her in the shadows, and paranoia washed over her in waves. 

11:02PM. 

“There it is,” John whispered, pointing at a door embedded in the far wall. “The safe room.” 

A steady dripping, like a leaky faucet, reached Lena’s ears. She looked around the darkness, searching for the source of the noise, but nothing obvious presented itself. 

Then, she saw a glimmer in the black, a reflection in the fringes of Sitter’s flashlight beam. 

The glimmer of an iris. 

“John!” Lena hissed, pointing to her right.  

He turned his flashlight in the direction she was pointing, illuminating a pile of mangled bodies, their blood dripping to the concrete floor. Lena covered her mouth in horror, backing away, as she recognized them. 

Fredricks. Miller. Torres. Robinson.  

The basement door behind them slammed shut, and they spun around to see the box-cutter-wielding Sleep Policeman slowly descending the staircase. A heavy thud, and Lena caught the Sleep Policeman with the claw hammer emerge from the shadows near the safe house door.  

They were trapped.  

11:04PM. 

“What do we do?” Paco asked, panic in his voice.  

John answered by squeezing the trigger of his pistol three times in succession, each bullet striking the hammer-wielding Sleep Policeman in the chest, staggering the intruder. No blood emerged from the wounds, however, and the masked man quickly recovered, rushing at John. Before he could reach him, John fired a fourth time, this time striking the Sleep Policeman in the center of his forehead. 

The would-be attacker’s head snapped back, knocking him into the safe room door. His sunglasses flew off his face, exposing beady black eyes, and his flesh-colored mask cracked, revealing something pale-white underneath. He collapsed to the floor, visibly dazed, but seemingly still very much alive.  

Lena registered a wet gurgle behind her, and she turned around to see Sitter falling backwards down the stairs, blood gushing from a horizontal slash in his neck. Paco stumbled away from the boxcutter-wielding Sleep Policeman, but the attacker lashed out, slashing the blade across the man’s face. Paco screamed, turning toward John and Lena to reveal a deep cut across both eyes.  

John aimed above Paco’s head, dispensing the rest of his magazine into the Sleep Policeman’s upper body. One bullet struck the man’s neck, and he clutched at the spot, falling back against the basement door and knocking it open.  

11:05PM.  

“Lena,” John said, his sharp tone commanding her attention, “Go upstairs to your bedroom. I’ll be right behind you. I just have to help Paco.” 

He reloaded his pistol, picking up the still-screaming Paco and throwing him over his shoulder. Lena saw the hammer-wielding Sleep Policeman recovering near the safe room entrance, so she ran up the basement stairs, crossing the threshold back into the rest of the house. As she did, the boxcutter-wielding Sleep Policeman grabbed her ankle, dragging her to the floor. She shrieked, but then John was next to her, firing point-blank twice into the man’s face. His grip on Lena went limp, and together, the three survivors rushed into the house. 

John’s flashlight bounced back and forth across the darkness haphazardly now, and Lena could tell he was struggling to maintain his pace while carrying Paco. They ascended the second-floor staircase without incident, quickly climbing them. When they reached the landing, though, footsteps sounded to their right, and Lena saw the screwdriver-wielding Sleep Policeman rushing at them. John hip-fired a round into the attacker’s kneecap, dropping him to the floor.  

“Lena, go,” he said, opening her bedroom door. “I’ve got to take care of this.” 

He gently laid Paco on her bedroom floor, hurriedly shoving Lena inside after him. “Lock the door. I’ll be right there.” 

Lena slammed the door shut and locked it, tears streaming down her face. Outside, she heard a series of gunshots, then heavy thuds, and the door rattled as something struck it. 

“What’s going on?” Paco asked, blood still leaking from his eyes. “I can’t see.” 

Silence outside. 

Then, blood pooled beneath the crack at the bottom of the door, soaking into Lena’s carpet. 

“J– John?” Lena whimpered. 

Tap-tap-tap.  

A faint tapping, like a fingertip against glass. 

Shaking, Lena slowly turned to face her bedroom window. Outside, silhouetted in the darkness, stared a fourth Sleep Policeman.  

11:08PM. 

He leaned back, punching through the glass. Reaching down, he unlocked the window, sliding it open. Slowly, menacingly, he climbed inside, producing a serrated handsaw from within his suit jacket. 

Paco, hearing the noise, sprinted at the man, shoving him back. “Get away from her!” 

The Sleep Policeman struck him in the throat, silencing him, and grabbed him by the hair, slamming him to the ground. He placed the edge of the saw to Paco’s neck, swiftly cutting back and forth, all the while staring at Lena. A sickening, grisly noise filled the room as blood spilled from Paco’s throat.  

“No!” Lena cried, turning away.  

She unlocked her door, swinging it open to reveal the other three Sleep Policemen waiting outside. They pushed into the room and grabbed her, holding her back as the fourth Sleep Policeman continued sawing. She closed her eyes, sobbing.  

11:09PM. 

“I promise, I promise, I’ll go to sleep tonight,” she begged. “Is that what you want? Will you leave us alone if I go to sleep?” 

She heard a wet, ripping sound, and opened her eyes to see the fourth Sleep Policeman rising to his feet, Paco’s severed head in hand. She screamed, covering her eyes, and felt the other Sleep Policemen picking her up. They carried her back, towards her bathroom, and she pulled her hands away. The Sleep Policeman with the bloody handsaw followed the other three into the bathroom, checking a watch on his wrist.  

11:10PM. 

Reaching into his suit jacket, the fourth Sleep Policeman revealed an old, beat-up flip phone. He opened it, dialing a number, while the others held Lena up in front of her bathroom mirror. She saw herself, wide-eyed and alone, as pale as whatever hid behind the Sleep Policemen’s plastic masks.  

The fourth Sleep Policeman aimed the flip phone at the mirror, putting the call on speaker. A rapid busy signal intonated throughout the bathroom, echoing off the walls. The mirror began to vibrate ever-so-slightly, and the hammer-wielding Sleep Policeman brought his blood-covered weapon down on the glass, shattering it. Rather than exposing the bathroom wall, the mirror fell away to reveal another bathroom, one almost identical to Lena’s. This one, however, looked older, grimier, illuminated in flickering green fluorescents. Together, the Sleep Policeman shoved the screaming girl through the new hole, her cries muffled as she passed into the second bathroom. 

11:11PM.