Part Two: Manhattan, 1977
It’s October in Manhattan, and it’s cold. The wind is cutting today—it races down man-made tunnels, towering walls of concrete and steel channeling it. Shaping it. Focusing it. Stories above the ground the wind is truly fierce and cold: birds keep to their perches, apartment dwellers keep their windows closed, and window washers take the day off. At ground level, the wind isn’t as fierce, but it still carries a sting. It feels more like mid-November than early October, and the pedestrians hurrying down the street wrap their coats tightly around them in an effort to beat back the chill.
CB, Sin and Billy lean against a chain link fence separating a back alley from the sidewalk. The fence is cold, but the trio sport expressions of disinterest and unconcern. CB is a thin, tall, lanky young man with thick, spiky hair. He watches each pedestrian as they pass hurriedly by, his cigarette drooping out the side of his mouth in a sneering fashion. His hands are thrust into the pockets of a ragged gray German pea coat covered in makeshift patches and safety pins. Sin, a heavyset, bald Asian, wears a thick green army jacket and an utterly bored expression. He tilts his head back against the fence and watches people passing by through mostly-closed eyes. Billy, the shortest of the three, wears a worn leather jacket two sizes too small. His bleach-white hair is combed into a “v” shape that falls down over his forehead.
“I’m bored,” Sin says. A woman passing in front of them sidesteps three paces at the sound of his voice, looks at them nervously, and hurries on.
CB grins. “Just wait. They’ll be here any minute.”
“Hope so,” Billy grumbles. “I’m cold.”
CB glances at Billy, annoyed. “Nobody’s making you stay.”
“Shut up, CB. It’s cold is all I’m saying. And don’t tell me you don’t feel it, even with that coat.”
CB shrugs. “They should show up soon. Yeah, there we go. Look down there. That’s the van.”
Sin and Billy look. A black-and-gold custom Dodge van drives slowly down the street toward them. It has smoke-tinted windows, revealing only a vague, indistinct shape in the driver’s seat.
Sin arches an eyebrow. “That?”
CB frowns. “Yes, that. What?”
“It seems sort of…” Sin trails off, looks hard at the van, then shrugs. “It seems sort of hip for something a villain would drive.”
“Why would a meta even drive?” Billy asks. “I mean, don’t they all fly or something?”
“God, Billy, just shut up,” CB says. “They don’t all fly. Moron.”
Billy glowers. “Well what do they do, then?”
“No clue,” CB says. “Some kind of mental crap, I think. Buddy’s working a new bar and he overheard two guys talking about these guys.” He gestures to the van. “Said they were going to rob the S&L.”
Directly across the street is a large concrete building. The sign Manhattan Thrift sits above a set of large double doors. The van slows down and comes to a stop a block from the building, engine idling.
“This is fucking stupid,” Billy says. “A Savings & Loan? Why the fuck would you rob a Savings & Loan? I mean, if you’re a meta. Shouldn’t you be trying to take over the world with giant robots and ray guns or something?”
“Yeah,” CB says. “If you’re a mad scientist. These guys aren’t mad scientists. Like I said, I don’t know what they do. Maybe they make zombie slaves. But Buddy said they’re totally strung out. They’re so deep into horse it’s all they can think about. They’re robbing the place to feed their habit.”
“We’re here to watch junkies?” Sin’s voice drips with contempt. “How is this not a big waste of time?”
“Well first it’s better than being in school,” CB snaps. “And they’re not just junkies. They’re junkies with super powers. But also Liberty is five blocks away from us right now.”
Sin and Billy fall silent. They watch the van with interest.
“How do you know?” Billy asks.
CB rolls his eyes. “Hell, Billy, everybody knows that.”
“I didn’t know that,” Sin says.
“Everybody who bothers to read the newspaper knows that. He’s at a convention giving a speech. But if he hears metas are attacking a bank? Come on, you know he’s going to show up.”
The gold-and-black van moves again, pulling out into traffic and traveling a block until it once again pulls over to the curb and slows to a halt—this time, right in front of the S&L.
“Who do we want to win?” Sin asks abruptly.
CB frowns. “Hard to say. I mean, on the one hand, it’d be kind of awesome if a van full of junkies just happened to kick Captain Flagpants’ ass up and down the street, you know? On the other hand… he’s going to be outnumbered.”
“Yeah,” Billy says. “If he took on the odds and won, that’d be pretty awesome.”
“But he’s The Man,” Sin protests.
“True,” Billy says.
“Yeah,” CB says, “but it’s not like they’re the vanguard of the revolution. It’s a van full of junkies. All they do is suck up air I could be breathing.”
“I hear it’s really cool to watch Liberty fight,” Billy says.
“Hope we find out.” CB tenses with excitement as he sees the driver-side door open. “Hold on. I think they’re getting out of the van.”
A white man with very kinky, curly hair, sideburns, sunglasses, a paisley-print shirt and flared jeans gets out and walks around the front of the van to the other side.
“God damn it.” CB flicks ash from his cigarette in irritation, then carelessly discards the still-glowing remainder on the sidewalk. “They would have to park right in front of the bank. We’re not going to be able to see a thing. Come on.”
He propels himself off the fence and starts across the street.
Sin’s eyes go wide. “Really? That’s—OK, wait up.” He grabs Billy by the collar and pulls him along.
“Hey!” Billy squawks, stumbles, and hurries in order to regain his footing. “I’m coming! Let go!”
CB jogs catty-corner across the street, ignoring the honking from the cars rushing past in both directions as he dodges traffic with the practiced ease of a native. When he reaches the other side he’s twenty or thirty feet from the van, and has an unobstructed view. Four men stand in front of the van, all facing each other. They’re all dressed like the driver: big hair, sunglasses, sideburns, flared jeans, paisley shirts.
CB shakes his head in disbelief. “Is that supposed to be their uniform, or something?”
“Is what supposed to be their uniform?” Sin asks. He steps up to the curb to join CB, puffing slightly from the effort of dodging traffic while pulling Billy helplessly along in his wake, then turns to look down the sidewalk, toward the van. “What are you talking—oh. Huh.”
Billy manages to pry himself free of Sin’s grip, looks at the four men standing in front of the van, and laughs. “Hippies? Jesus, CB.”
“Shut up. I didn’t dress them. What are they doing?”
Sin shakes his head. “They’re standing in a circle holding hands. Kum ba yah is next, right?”
“No… look!” CB’s voice is tight with excitement. “There’s some kind of glow. You see the glow?”
It’s faint at first—a slight ripple in the air around the outlines of the men, all standing in a circle, holding hands, heads bowed. It looks like the shimmer of a hot sidewalk in summer, but it’s too cold for that. Seconds pass, the shimmering solidifies, until all at once a nimbus of blue energy surrounds them, translucent, obscuring their features.
“Holy shit,” Billy whispers.
The glow intensifies, brightens, until it’s so strong their features are completely hidden by light. All at once the light flares, bright enough to create new shadows on the ground from the objects around it.
“What are they doing?” Sin asks.
The glow is so bright CB has to throw his arm across his eyes. The four men are completely obscured by the light, and CB is dimly aware of the sound of cars screeching to a halt, crashing into each other, steel smashing into steel.
“Power to the people!” one of them shouts.
“Power to the people!” the others shout back.
All at once the air ripples and fills with an intense thummm. The men are gone; in their place is a single humanoid shape, glowing with blinding radiance. It’s nearly nine feet in height, roughly the shape of a man but flatter and wider, like a paper cutout with burning edges.
It looks like light set on fire.
“God damn it, CB,” Sin growls.
The creature whips around toward the sound of Sin’s voice. CB, Sin and Billy all take an involuntary step back. It stares at them for a moment. CB can’t breathe. He can feel heat radiating from it, heat and power. It could kill them, he realizes—all of them, easily. He tenses and wonders if he can dive behind the green Oldsmobile station wagon to his right before it strikes. Then, slowly, it turns away to face the Savings & Loan. It emits a low, rumbling growl.
CB hears Billy exhale sharply, Sin swear softly under his breath. They all crouch behind the Oldsmobile and watch.
The rumbling growl escalates quickly, shifting into a high-pitched shriek of rage. It’s not a sound made by men. CB doesn’t know what happened to the four men who created this thing, but there’s no trace of humanity in it now. It lashes out with its arms, striking toward the side of the S&L: energy streams out of its fiery, paper-thin arms and burrows into the wall. CB feels a wave of intense heat as some of the concrete shatters from the force of the strike, and the rest actually begins to melt.
Burrrrrrrrrrrn. The word is barely understandable, but the creature repeats it over and over like a mantra. More of the wall melts. CB can hear people screaming in terror. He hears the sound of horns, frantically honking to no effect. He doesn’t bother to look behind him—he can’t. He stares at the glowing thing, fascinated.
“This doesn’t look like a bunch of junkies robbing a bank,” Billy says.
“No,” CB agrees. “Really doesn’t.”
The building is starting to sag on one side. The heat isn’t just affecting the S&L, it’s damaging the buildings on either side of it as well. Burrrrrrrrrn. CB wonders if it’s trying to burn through the wall or is deliberately trying to collapse the building. It shouldn’t be too much longer before it collapses. Burrrrrrrrn.
“Where’s Liberty?” Sin asks. “That thing is going to kill a lot of people. I don’t want to see that.”
An explosion erupts from the door of the Savings & Loan. No, not an explosion—a gunshot. An armed guard carrying a heavy-caliber revolver stands in the doorway, firing at the glowing creature. The noise is deafening—CB has never heard a gun fired so close to him before, and he’s surprised at how loud it is. The bullets flash and disappear before they reach the creature, but it too hears the noise, and turns.
Burrrrrn. One arm extends to the guard, and energy covers him. The guard screams, but only briefly. Then he disappears. CB recoils in horror as he smells burning ash.
“Holy shit,” Sin says. “They killed that guy! They just killed him!”
Sin bolts from behind the Oldsmobile and darts across the street. Traffic is at a complete standstill. A four-car pileup blocks both lanes, but nobody cares about that—not even the people in the accident. There aren’t many onlookers—most have run away at this point, and the few who remain look like they won’t be hanging around much longer. Sin leaps over the hood of a car and runs to the other side of the street, then takes off down the sidewalk as fast as he can run.
“Sin! Wait!” CB calls out after his friend, but Sin doesn’t look back. A moment later, Billy follows in kind. CB is alone behind the car.
The creature returns its attention to the bank, focusing its energies on the wall. CB smells smoke—the blast that killed the security guard also melted through the glass doors and set the interior of the building ablaze. He can hear cries for help inside, but nobody runs out.
He hopes there’s a back door. He hopes they use it.
And then, suddenly, a streak of motion—something races past CB’s field of vision and streaks toward the creature in a blur. It’s not until the object begins to melt that CB realizes it’s a manhole cover. It doesn’t get close enough to touch the creature, but it is noticed all the same. The creature turns.
“Stop what you’re doing. Now!” The voice is loud and commanding.
CB turns to look. Standing on one of the abandoned cars in the middle of the street is a man wearing blue-and-brown body armor. On his chest is a stylized flag with a single star. Hanging from his belt, where most people would expect to see a gun, is a large truncheon.
Liberty is here.
He’s clean-shaven, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and has a classically strong jaw. CB immediately dislikes him. He’s holding something—CB can’t tell exactly what it is, but it reminds him of a harpoon. Liberty looks at the creature without fear.
The air around the creature surges with power as it continues to repeat the word Burrrrrrrn.
“I have its attention,” Liberty says. He doesn’t sound entirely happy about this. “Ready?”
“Ready!” The voice comes from above. CB looks up and gapes. Floating about thirty feet in the air is something that looks like a flattened pontoon boat without a top. A man in his early twenties stands on it, grasping what looks like a radio receiver in his right hand.
Liberty steels himself, then hefts the “harpoon” in his right hand and throws. It flies through the air toward the creature, and to CB’s surprise it does not melt—it tears through the creature with a flash of blue and sinks into the bubbling, melted concrete.
The creature roars and lashes out, a wave of energy surging toward Liberty. At the same time, Liberty leaps to one side—the energy washes over the car where he’d originally stood, and the car is torn to pieces, parts of it melted into slag before his eyes. CB smells gasoline, but there’s no time for it to ignite.
Something glints off the light. A line, a cable so thin CB didn’t see it originally, connects to the end of the harpoon, travels through the creature, then attaches itself to the floating sky platform at the other end.
The creature doesn’t notice—it’s too intent on destroying Liberty. It sweeps the energy toward him, and he runs. The ground bubbles and melts behind him as he runs toward the thing. The creature howls in rage and a patch of sidewalk behind Liberty turns into a pool of liquid concrete.
CB is sweating now. The side of the Oldsmobile he’s hiding behind is almost too hot to touch.
Liberty carries a second harpoon. Now that CB knows what to look for he sees that it, too, has a thin cable attaching it to the floating platform. He’s wincing—CB can only imagine how hot it must be, as close to the creature as he is—and as he darts past the glowing thing parts of his costume begin to smolder. The creature raises its arms to strike again, but Liberty throws himself toward the melted portion of the wall, touches the end of his harpoon against the exposed metal of the first, and shouts “Now!”
The man on the platform closes his fist over the thing that looks like a radio receiver. The air crackles with energy, fills with the smell of ozone, and hairs stand up on the back of CB’s neck.
The creature screams in a mixture of pain and rage. The current—whatever it is—passes through the cable, and thus through it. Immediately it starts to flicker, like a light bulb burning through its filament, and then all at once it falls apart into four separate man-sized pieces. The glow fades, the humming stops, and four men dressed in flared jeans and paisley shirts lie motionless on the ground. A short distance from them, Liberty slumps over as he drops the second harpoon. It falls to the concrete with a dull clang.
“Ouch,” Liberty says.
The floating platform lowers, emitting a strange pulsing, buzzing noise as it does, and when it’s about five feet off the ground the young man leaps off it and runs toward him.
“Are you all right?” the man asks.
“Don’t worry about me.” Liberty picks himself up off the ground. “We need to get into that building and help the—”
“No we don’t,” the other man says. “Fire and Rescue went in the back and got everyone out of the building. I was in contact with the dispatcher while you were fighting… them. Are you sure you’re OK?”
Liberty nods and waves him away. “Take care of those,” he says, motioning toward the four prone men. “I’m fine.”
He doesn’t look fine to CB, but he does look alive. That’s impressive enough.
The other man obediently stops at each of the unconscious figures and turns them on their stomachs, puts their hands behind their backs, and places a pair of handcuffs on each of them. “I told you not to touch the metal.” His voice is tight with worry. “I told you that if you were touching the metal when the two bars made contact—which you were—you would complete the circuit—which you did. You could have died.”
“I didn’t die,” Liberty says, and stands. “Sorry, Doc. The first bar was half-sunk in the wall. I had to hold the second to make sure they kept contact. I figured I could handle the surge.”
The other man stands and walks over to Liberty, frowning. “Well, we’d better fly you to a hospital and get you checked out.”
Liberty shakes his head. “We need to get these four in the Pit,” he says. “We can check up on me later. We don’t want them… doing… that again.”
Liberty frowns, then turns to look straight at CB. The second man follows his gaze and his eyes widen in surprise. CB is standing not much more than ten feet from them, listening to their conversation with undisguised interest.
“Shouldn’t you be in school, son?” Liberty asks.
Immediately the finger goes up. It’s purely instinctive, and it takes a moment for CB to realize he’s just flipped the greatest hero of World War II the bird. He puts his hands in his jacket pockets, but doesn’t bother looking embarrassed. Instead, he looks over his shoulder at the floating platform.
“What the hell is that thing?”
“It’s my car,” the other man says. “And you are…?”
CB doesn’t reply. “It’s just floating there,” he observes. “No engines on it that I can see. It’s not like the hoverjets they’re talking about at Skylar Industries. Those would be setting small cars on fire right now…”
“Uh…” The younger man is clearly thrown off by the observation. “That’s right, they’re not jets. It’s new. Who are you?”
“Son,” Liberty cuts in smoothly, “the police are going to be here pretty soon. If you are, in fact, supposed to be in school, I expect being a witness to a crime scene will make your life inconvenient.”
CB turns away from the floating platform to look at Liberty, considering his words. “Good fight,” he says finally. “Neat trick with the hooks.” With that he starts walking down the sidewalk, away from the smoking S&L and away from the scene of the crime.
“Why did you let him go?” the other man asks. “He was a witness, right? Aren’t we supposed to question him or something?”
“He was hiding behind that Oldsmobile when we got here,” Liberty says. “Trying not to get killed. I couldn’t get to him without putting him in more danger, and I don’t feel like making his day any worse. The important thing is we got Abel and his boys. Now let’s make sure they don’t cause any more problems…”