Things were bad. There was lead in my shoulder and everyone else was down for the count. Truman and Dad both dangled useless on their valkyries while Timmy hurtled towards a watery grave.
So fast. We’d been in the middle of discussing what to do when they ambushed us.
Screaming. A woman screaming and a tiny man with pearl skin doing something awful to Timmy.
“Anyone still awake?” Jake cried.
“I’m here.” I gasped. “Send the valkyries to save Red Snow.”
“No way, the banshee’s priority,” Jake said.
“Let me worry about that.” I unclipped the Torch. This was either going to save the day or break my neck. My plan was to hit the banshee in the gut. If I was careful I could knock the wind out of her without killing her. That wasn’t the stupid part of my plan. The stupid part was when I didn’t let go.
We were falling. Flying? Shooting. The Torch and I shot through the air. The cold wind of the bay whistled through my ears as we slammed into the banshee. As I’d hoped, the Torch protected me from the impact. Unfortunately that didn’t make my landing any more graceful. I came to a dead stop on top of her. The way the Torch canceled my momentum was both anticlimactic and uncanny. There was no skidding or tumbling, just a sharp, emphatic stop.
The banshee threw up all over my jacket.
“Oh, come on!” I grumbled. But there was no time. Once I was on my feet I knew the banshee would be up again soon. The bullet still burned in my shoulder and the gargoyle flew overhead. I could feel its gaze through the scope of its rifle.
“Vive le resistance, motherfucker!” it screamed. A female voice. Block your face! A small explosion, too loud for real life. A bullet bit into my elbow. Burrowed, more like. I could feel flesh rip and bone splinter. Our handlers had decked me out in alchemical kevlar and magical tattoos. None of it was enough to make me bullet proof. Blinding pain. Reeling brain. The imperative urge to stay alive. I threw the Torch.
It wasn’t the same. My concentration faltered, my intentions wavered. I didn’t want to kill the gargoyle but I didn’t want to not-kill her either. All I had done was lash out. The Torch zagged stupid in the air before taking a corkscrew fall back to my feet. The gargoyle fired again, bullet whistling past my ear as I spun backwards onto the ground.
Stairs to my left, a place to seek cover. I grabbed the Torch and took a dive while the Gargoyle’s bullet grazed my ass. I could hear Jake screaming on the radio for Gail and Truman to wake up. The steps rushed past my face and grazed my chest before I crashed.
“Fuck!” I roared. No clue how Timmy was doing. That was Kaplan’s problem now. Blood scabbed at an alarming rate over my wounds as the sigils tattooed on my skin did their work. I wasn’t about to bleed out but everything was going to hurt.
Something gasped to my left. Almost killed him. Instead I snapped the Torchlight on and lit up his face. “Augh! You! What can you do?” My social graces went out the window somewhere after the first bullet wound.
The little man was hideous in the light. Red blisters sprouted all over his skin. His legs were on backwards, crossed behind his back while he leaned forward on his butt. “Eh?” he stammered. He held his hands up to block the light.
He had earplugs in. I yanked them off. “What! Can! You! Do!?”
“Illusions!” he yelped. “I make stuff look like other stuff, that’s all!”
“But what if he’s just an illusion of a guy who makes illusions?” The Torch asked. Useless thing. My only options were to trust him or come up with something brilliant, and I was all out of brilliant. “Can you make it look like I’m running out to the other side of the boat? Like I’m attacking that little white guy?”
Automatic fire ripped through the air, different from the gargoyle’s gun. Hans had either saved Red Snow or given up. I didn’t like the odds. The blistered man’s face hardened. “That… No. I’ll go quietly. But I’m not helping you pigs.”
Gunfire drowned out the Torch’s commentary. The muffled sound of an explosion in the water. Waves rocked the vessel and bounced us back and forth. “Quiet time is over.” I gripped his arm. “You’ve heard the best option you’re gonna get.”
I didn’t like saying it. I didn’t like the sound of gunfire either. The blister covered man’s eyes grew wet and small and he nodded. I peeked past the staircase. There I was, or a perfect imitation of me, rushing for the far side of the boat.
Wings flapped. The gargoyle fired. My doppelganger ran and the gargoyle followed in hot pursuit.
“Good work,” I said. No time for wrong moves. I waited for the Gargoyle to pass through my line of sight and I sent the Torch flying. It landed with a grotesque crunch against the small of her back. Wings twitched. She fluttered to the water with a splash. The illusionist cried out behind me.
Everything up-top was terrible. Dad’s valkyrie had crash landed and she lay sprawled out next to it. Was she alright? No noise, no motion, no time.
Hans was shooting the little white man who now stood at the center of a dome made of bullets. The more Hans fired the larger the dome grew and already it had formed a thick lead crust.
The third valkyrie flew in a circle overhead, Red Snow and Truman draped on opposite wings. Truman hung on, not much stiffer than a rag doll. Red Snow was one jetpack poorer, his laser beam aimed at the side of the little man’s dome. Molten bullets dripped down the dome’s side, pooling at the bottom and causing the floor to smolder.
“Aim for the top!” I screamed over the radio as I raced for the boat’s railing. A gargoyle drowning. My fault. Nothing I could do for Gail right now. If I took too long to hesitate one person for sure would die.
The Torch returned to my palm as my eyes searched the waters for the gargoyle. Could let her drown, part of me said. Your teammates need help. There she was, thirty yards out from the side. Claw though she did, her legs floated dead in the water. The water yanked at her wings. Shit.
I launched. For a single moment I sat on the water, my momentum canceled by the power of the Torch. Gravity soon took hold and I was bobbing in ice water with a panicked gargoyle. Even with her gun dropped her claws were sharp and her fangs were long. Blood trailed from my shoulder and elbow into the water. Only one good arm left.
With my remaining hand I held the Torch tight. While I couldn’t freeze it in place I could use it to reorient myself as needed. The gargyole was a mess of sharp points and wings churning in the water.
No time to do this elegantly. Timmy was still firing his laser and hadn’t adjusted his aim. He was going to set the boat on fire if he didn’t change tactics quick. I wrapped my legs around the gargoyle’s torso, wincing as she slashed at my shins. Then I gripped the Torch as it propelled back to the deck. We shot out of the water.
My grip faltered. The gargoyle went skittering a few more feet. I’d probably compounded her injuries but at least she wouldn’t drown. The pool of melted lead had completely burned the patch of floor beneath the tiny man. Flames began to light the deck below his feet. He floated in mid-air, still shrouded in a halo of melting bullets. The fire was small but it would only grow if Timmy didn’t change tactics.
I turned on my radio. “Timmy! The melted bullets are flowing right off his force field.”
“I can see that!” he snapped.
“Then fire at the top so they-”
Jake’s voice broke in over the radio. “Wait, no!”
“Mmmm shut up,” Truman slurred. He sounded groggy from the banshee’s attack but he was finally rearing back up to a sitting position. He gave his axe hand a clumsy, almost drunken swing.
It looked so casual considering the chain reaction that followed. The little pearlescent man’s eyes rolled up into the back of his head and his powers faltered. Bullets rained to the ground around him. Kaplan’s valkyrie continued to fire. Drugged and without his force field, the man was a sitting duck. Arcs of blood danced up from his body as it fell into the fires below.
“NOW you wake up!?” Jake yelled.
A boat on fire. No combatants left. I ran to the railing to get the right angle. The Torch shot into the water. A tidal wave of cold water arced over the side, drenching my hair, turning the inferno to steam.
Salt from the water stung the wounds in my arm and I crumpled to the deck, exhausted. As I drifted out of consciousness I heard Dad puke onto the deck and croak, “go team!” The sound of patrol boat sirens crept into the air.
* * * * * * *
When I came to I snapped my head side to side. A fight. Fire. Sirens. But we were on land.
We’d been carried onto shore by the border patrol. Reporters and gawkers leaned against the Supreme Service barrier a hundred yards away. The rest of YOUTHFRONT sat with me at the scene. Medics looks after Gail and Truman while Timmy talked to some cops. Everyone was alive. Everyone except for the tiny man with the pearl skin.
Shit. “You’re awake,” the medic tending my bullet wound said. I started crying. “You must be really awake. Better take a moment to compose yourself.” He took out a spool of Quick Stitches and started sealing over the puncture. He must have already gotten the bullets out while I slept. Mutant stem cells hibernating in the thread of the Quick Stitches unfurled in my skin. “Your shoulder got lucky, your elbow not so much.” I looked down. The cast encased my whole forearm, elbow to wrist.
“Shouldn’t I go to a hospital?” I asked. I pulled up the collar of my costume to wipe the tears. My first bullet wounds. My first murder. I hadn’t done it but the tiny man would have still be dead if they’d followed my plan.
“Yeah, uh, we got orders from up top to keep you here.” He looked sheepish. “The big guy wanted to make an appearance, see, but-”
A high pitched giggling filled the air. The crowd went wild. What was that smell? Somewhere in the distance, I heard Timmy howl “son of a goddamned BITCH!” I looked in his direction. He was soaked, head to toe, in piping hot urine. Never a good sign.
“Did somebody say pisssssssss?” P!ss Frog asked with a horrendous giggle. The malformed green frog-man bounced over the crowd. His fans screamed with delight. His face looked as if Kermit the Frog had made love to a melted Richard Nixon mask. He opened his mouth impossibly wide and amber yellow piss flowed forth like a geyser. Its mist coated the adoring crowd.
The medic chuckled and shook his head. “-but we got this loveable rascal instead.” He hastily knotted up my stitches before jumping up and down in the air. “Piss in my mouth, P!ss Frog! I deserve it! I need it!”
P!ss Frog obliged. That was more than enough for me. I jogged over to Gail and Truman, desperate to be anywhere but right next to P!ss Frog’s bullseye. “So… This is our big premiere, huh?”
“This is great,” Aaron cackled. “Do you think he’ll do me?” His mask was only half-way on his face, showing one unfocused eye and an idiotic grin. “Hey! Roxxxxxie! I learned a new word today. Hyyydrooocooooodoooooooone.” His voice began to slur like a tape recorder losing power. Then, “I can make it go off!” His eyes suddenly snapped to attention. Clarity was soon broken by obvious agony. He screamed for a single second before crashing back into his mellowness. “IIII kerrrn turn ert berk ernn,” he gurgled.
“Is he gonna OD or something?” I asked.
Gail shook her head. “He’s been doing this since the medics dosed him. I was giving him suggestions for new drugs to try ’til it stopped being funny. I don’t think he can OD.”
Timmy joined us moments later. “Outrageous. Our grand premiere upstaged by P!ss Frog of all people.” Then, with a clenched fist he whispered, “my nemesis.”
“The Frog’s just a warm-up act,” Jake explained over the radio. “I’m bringing our whiz kid over to the rest of you for a team photo.” I forgot I’d had my helmet on this whole time.
“Isn’t the Frog the whiz kid?” Dad asked. “Or is he a whiz man, I guess?”
Gail making dumb jokes. Timmy covered in piss. Truman doped up to his gills and me bandaged and bloodied with Banshee barf all over my coat. What a sight. And even in that piss-stained moment, I was naive. My hopes were low. But I had no idea that the next year could turn out so completely and utterly wrong.
Look out, America. This was YOUTHFRONT.