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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
My heart fluttered, but I contained myself. I had my own job to do.
Piston opened the front door, and we hurried into the street, aiming toward the library. As we crossed it, I glanced to the left, my eyes widening. About a mile away, visible through the skyscrapers, skittered a massive, ten-story crab, its claws snapping at the nearby buildings. Surrounding it, I saw The Public Servants on land and in the air, attacking it with flames and sonic waves and super-strong punches.
“And there’s our lovely benefactor,” Cylinder commented.
S.S. rocketed overhead, the flames from their propulsion system leaving a smoke trail through the clouds. While I watched, they raised their arms, shedding an array of bright red orbs which rocketed toward the crab, exploding against its carapace.
“So that’s what plasma missiles look like,” I said. Something occurred to me, and I paused. “Wait. How did Angler get such a large animal so far inland without anyone noticing?”
“Probably the sea monkey method,” Textile responded as we reached the other side of the street.
I glanced at him. “The what?”
“Well, we’re pretty sure Angler spends most of her time in the oceanic trenches breeding things like this,” Textile explained. “She probably just made something that starts small, but grows to a massive size when exposed to something. Then she smuggled it into the city and ‘activated’ it.”
“That has . . . horrible implications,” I said.
Textile just nodded.
“Eyes forward,” Piston said. “We’re breaching.”
Not waiting for a response, she lifted her leg, kicking the library door from its hinges. As it clattered to the ground, we hurried inside.
“Probably wasn’t even locked,” I heard Cylinder mutter, but Piston seemed to ignore him.
We crept through the aisles of books, staying low as I scanned the area around us.
“Well?” Piston asked me. “What do you sense?”
“There’s definitely electrical wires leading below the library,” I said. “It actually seems to be some kind of tunnel system that congregates underneath us. Lots of people there, too.”
“How do we get inside?” she prodded.
I opened my mouth to answer, but my senses picked up activity near us. “Oh. We have company.”
We exited the aisles into a designated reading area, complete with wooden tables and fabric-covered chairs. In the clearing, about ten feet away, stood four men and two women in plain clothes, sporting automatic pistols and rifles.
“You folks lost?” one of the women asked, leveling her rifle. “Maybe you should head back to whatever pajama party you just came from.”
One of the men cocked his head as he looked us over. “Bettie, these ain’t Public Servants.”
“They ain’t nobody, now,” another man said, taking aim with what appeared to be an Uzi.
Piston grabbed me, pulling me behind Textile’s cloaked back, and Cylinder followed us. As we did, the six men and women opened fire, filling the air between us and them with bullets. I covered my ears, tensing my muscles, but Textile didn’t budge. Instead, his hydraulic suit soaked up the projectiles, and the deformed slugs bounced away, piling up at his feet.
After a moment, the gunfire ceased, and I heard the aluminum clatter of magazines being ejected. Textile crouched, addressing us.
The joins around his legs hissed compressed air, and he sprang forward, clearing the gap in an instant. His fist cocked, and as his arm vented pressure, it propelled his knuckles into the biggest attacker’s face as if they were attached to a rocket. The force of the strike emitted a sharp crack, and the recipient tumbled to the ground, seemingly unconscious.
Piston, Cylinder and I rushed to join the melee.
I reached the woman who’d spoken, Bettie, first, and decided to test Textile’s suit. Reaching out, I struck her in the stomach with an uppercut, emitting a small, harmless electric shock. As I released the energy, I felt Textile’s transistor coils soak it up, amplifying it along a series of microscopic rails. The knuckles of my gloves flared with yellow light, and I heard a sharp buzz as enough electricity entered Bettie’s body to knock her back a dozen feet, collapsing somewhere out of sight in the autobiography section.
“Wow.” I commented to myself. “Nice.”
In the corner of my eye, I saw Cylinder engage one of the men, his arm snapping out with precise strikes, targeting pressure points along the attacker’s neck and upper torso. The man tried to defend himself, but Cylinder danced around his punches, returning with a volley of his own. Weakened and clearly losing consciousness, the man tried to tackle Cylinder. My new teammate simply side-stepped the attempt, and as the man fell forward, Cylinder reached out and jabbed into a spot where the man’s neck met his shoulder. The man collapsed to the floor, unmoving.
I heard gunfire, and turned to see that the second woman had pulled another pistol, firing it almost point-blank into Textile’s helmet. He slowly walked toward her, unfazed, and back-handed the weapon from her wrist. She snarled, pulling a knife, but then Piston appeared, kicking her across the library into the periodicals.
The commotion ceased, and I surveyed the unconscious people around us. “These aren’t SPIs.”
“No,” Piston responded, “these were just a bunch of nobodies.”
“If there are SPIs below us, why would they hire these thugs to guard above-ground?” Textile asked.
I gestured toward the library’s storage closet, now visible near the back of the building. “Why don’t we find out?”
We hurried to the closet, and I opened it, reaching behind the shelves of cleaning supplies. There, I found a small, plastic switch, easily mistaken for an inconveniently-placed light switch. I flipped it, and we glanced to the opposite wall as it emitted a quiet click.
“Knock knock,” Piston said, kicking the wall. The hidden door I’d unlatched hurtled open, revealing a dark staircase.
“Who’s first?” Cylinder asked.
He looked at me, followed by Piston and Textile.
I sighed. “I guess that makes sense.”
Textile placed a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll be close.”
Cautiously, I took my first step, my black-and-yellow combat boot settling on grey concrete. The others followed me, and I scanned ahead, following the power lines in the ceiling. Soon, we reached a landing with a thick, steel door embedded in stone. I tried the handle, but the door was locked. My head tilted in Piston’s direction.
“What?” she snapped. “You think all I do is kick things?”
I saw Textile and Cylinder put their hands on their hips expectantly. Rolling her eyes, Piston took position in front of the door, raising her leg and striking it near the handle. The metal dented, but the door remained intact, so she repeated the action. It took a good six kicks before I heard the lock break, and the barrier swung open.
We moved into a large, cold room, the edges of which were obscured by darkness. The stone around us seemed clammy, wet and deformed, and I looked around. “It’s a cave.”
Something stirred in the darkness, and I registered bioelectric signatures radiating over my head. At first, I almost missed them, because they hardly registered like a human. They were . . . different. Unnatural.
“Guys?” I whispered.
They glanced at me, and I slowly pointed at the ceiling. Piston retrieved a flare from her belt, igniting it and holding it in the air. The red light revealed at least two dozen men and women, all sharply pale and dressed in what appeared to be white robes, clinging like insects to the cave ceiling. As the shadows melted away, the people glared down at us with glowing yellow eyes, hissing through long, pointed fangs.
Next to me, Textile unsheathed his katana, assuming a fighting stance. “That’s why there weren’t any SPIs above ground. It’s daytime.”
Piston nodded, unslinging her shotgun and chambering a round.
“Vampires,” Cylinder spat, readying his Bowie knife. “I fucking hate vampires.”
The creatures overhead pounced, and bodies rained down from the darkness.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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?