All lanes on the Poseidon Bridge stopped dead, though not due to any obstructions in the road. The winged unicorns were fighting the Terrific Trio in the sky, after all, leaving drivers free to proceed. But whether entering the island of Olympus City or exiting to Santa Monica, they all rated their destination far less compelling than the spectacle taking place high above the water.
The rubberneckers were perhaps hoping for any passing glimpse of Ultra Woman overpowering a creature with her impossible strength, or Mr. Amazing repelling another with his telekinesis, or Fantastic Man blinding one with a burst of dazzling light. Several spectators poked their heads and arms out windows or emerged from their vehicles entirely and congregated along the guardrails. Some photographed. Some filmed. Some simply watched in wonder. All enjoyed the show. It was entertainment plus a jolt of adrenaline. More than likely, the fate of the city was at stake, maybe the fate of the world, but wasn’t it spectacular?
Alyssa Henson held her gaze straight ahead, her narrow face resting in a frown. She sat in the back of a taxicab, one piece of luggage at her side and the remainder in the trunk, as she waited for forward momentum to resume and carry her into Olympus, to her new life. Right now, though, she could focus on nothing but one little girl.
The child had climbed up the concrete guardrail and was holding onto the metal bar—the only thing separating her from a hundred-foot plunge into the Pacific Ocean. The hazard did not deter her. The fearless child watched the sky as the superheroes flew higher, directing the creatures’ energy blasts upward, away from even the most imposing skyscrapers in the center of Olympus.
A few adults stood nearby. None issued a warning to get down right this second, young lady. They faced the other way, toward the battle in the distance.
The girl wobbled, then steadied herself. The momentary loss of balance failed to alert her to the reality of her own peril.
Alyssa’s heart thudded.
The little girl leaned forward, sticking her head out over the railing. She couldn’t have been more than seven. No one paid her any attention. All they had to do was tell her to get down before she fell. If they were expecting an instant superhero rescue, they were neglecting the fact that the superheroes were preoccupied battling unicorns thousands of feet away.
The girl stood tall on the guardrail, and her hand vacated the bar to shield her eyes from the sun.
Alyssa jumped out of the cab. And stopped immediately.
A potbellied man, presumably the father, tugged the girl off the guardrail and hoisted her onto his shoulders. From this improved perch, she waved at the superheroes.
Her assistance not needed after all, Alyssa slunk back into the cab, appreciating its warmth. She wrapped her black leather jacket tightly around her bony torso. The January air was a touch too cold, but still more comfortable than back home. With her fingers, she brushed auburn hair away from her piercing eyes.
“How was the view out there?” asked the cab driver, a bearded, heavyset man.
“Oh, I was just—” She decided not to get into it. “Not much better. It’s all pretty far away.”
“I met them once,” the driver said with a proud nod. “The Terrific Trio.”
Alyssa reminded herself to be polite. “That’s … nice.”
“They saved my life. I was driving my cab here, and all of a sudden—bam! This huge guy, one of those supervillains, lifts my car into the air with me in it, and get this, he throws me.”
Alyssa got the impression the driver had told this tale a few dozen times already. His broad smile shone from beneath abundant facial hair as his hands illustrated the trajectory of the thrown car. Becoming a supervillain’s projectile was the greatest thing that ever happened to the poor guy, judging from his exuberant tone. The story went on for a few minutes. Meanwhile, the cab’s fare meter ticked upward; the odometer did not.
“—and then Ultra Woman swoops down and clocks the big guy right on the—look! There she is!”
The driver peered up through his windshield and pointed, his finger quivering in unbridled excitement, like he had spotted Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
Ultra Woman wrapped an arm around a unicorn’s neck as they swerved over the bridge, though it was unclear which of them was steering. They twirled, and Ultra Woman’s cape billowed as they tipped toward the water.
Green tights and a scarlet cape, plus a fierce bird symbol of some sort on the chest. A twenty-something adult was wearing, essentially, pajamas. Alyssa wondered how she showed her face in public dressed like that.
She didn’t. She wore a mask, as did the other two.
Nevertheless, as Ultra Woman tamed the aggressive creature, avoiding its horn blasts while ensuring no one got hurt, Alyssa had to admit—it was kind of impressive, in a way.
The driver certainly thought so. He pointed his cell phone at the action and snapped pictures, even though said action was drifting farther from the bridge and rising ever higher above the water. And he was hardly the only bystander angling for the perfect shot.
The unicorns herded around Ultra Woman. Each one’s hide was a different color, and a vibrant color at that, while their wings sported the entire rainbow, shifting from red on one tip to violet on the opposite side. They seemed too bright to be menacing.
One unicorn tagged Ultra Woman with an energy blast from its horn, but she swiftly recovered and slammed her fist against that unicorn’s hide, moving so fast that she became a blur. One second later, four unicorns plunged toward the water.
Alyssa wondered what such power would feel like. She imagined herself flying as Ultra Woman—the rushing wind against her face, the confidence of knowing she possessed greater physical strength than any person living or dead, the lack of fear that came with such might. The speed would be the best of all. Such a practical power. A super-fast person would never need to rely on a taxi, for example.
The fare meter crept ever higher.
More unicorns flew from the city, pursued by Mr. Amazing. He had a cape, too, and his mask shrouded his entire head. Unlike Ultra Woman, he dressed almost in monochrome, clad in a dark gray up and down with the exception of a ruby letter A on his chest. His appearance was slightly less ridiculous, though the blank mask didn’t help; it looked like someone stuffed a tight bag over his face and he somehow failed to notice.
Mr. Amazing waved his arms in multiple directions, batting unicorns away without touching any, while Ultra Woman swirled around them at super-speed, hammering her opponents from all sides. The pair fought the whole relentless herd while the bridge spectators treated this as a thrilling gladiatorial contest. Alyssa wanted to know if the superheroes could hear their fans’ cheers, and whether their egos required it.
The cheering spiked when a thin beam of light streaked across the sky. But this light was no ordinary collection of photons. Sometimes, this light was a person, a guy who answered to the name Fantastic Man.
Fantastic Man’s ability to manipulate light may have had some practical uses, too, but his ability to transform his entire body into light … Alyssa found that unsettling. She watched the shimmering beam swerve around the unicorns, and she shuddered.
The light pulsed directly at several unicorns’ eyes, disorienting them while Ultra Woman and Mr. Amazing attacked.
“Aren’t they great?” the cab driver said.
Alyssa wanted to think so. She wanted to get swept up in the excitement with everyone else. She felt the tug; it threatened to lift the corners of her mouth into a smile as Ultra Woman knocked out three unicorns with a single mighty blow. But a little girl could have died today.
“What the hell even causes a unicorn attack in the first place?” Alyssa blurted out.
The driver stroked his beard, his eyes glinting as he watched the creatures. “We never really know about these things until after the fact. But my bet?” He took pride in his hunch, perhaps envisioning himself as the master sleuth puzzling out the mystery. “This whole thing screams Doctor Hades.”
He said the name as though Alyssa would obviously know it. She was slightly embarrassed that she did know the name, though not much more than that. She tried to refrain from reading fantasy stories in the news. Often, she succeeded. It helped that the bizarre occurrences seldom spread beyond Olympus.
The driver’s eyebrows jumped in the rearview mirror. “Do you not know about Doctor Hades? Been living under a rock, have you?” he added with a good-natured smile.
“I vaguely recall hearing about him. I was busy finishing up school, so I haven’t been paying much attention to anything else.”
The driver nodded. Education was, evidently, the most acceptable excuse for lack of supervillain knowledge. “Ah, yes. Good you focus on the books. What did you study?”
She hated the question. She hated the answer more, and her volume dropped as she said it. “Dental hygiene.”
It took the driver a second to catch the response; the action was too distracting. “Oh, you’re a dental hygienist? I’ve got a cousin who’s a hygienist. She loves it—she’s coming up on twenty years in her office. It’s such a nice, stable profession. You don’t get the ups and downs that so many other industries go through. Everyone always needs clean teeth—and transportation.” He chuckled like they were sharing a joke, one Alyssa didn’t want to understand. “You and me, we’re practical people.”
Alyssa attempted a polite laugh. The effort collapsed after a second, though the driver was too busy watching the battle outside to notice.
“Yeah, this has got to be a Doctor Hades plot,” the driver said. “Now, listen—in Olympus, you should know about Doctor Hades. So let me tell you …”
And he did. Doctor Hades—real name Warner something or something Warner, the driver couldn’t recall exactly—used to be a mediocre scientist. Frustrated by his failures, Doctor Hades developed a suit of golden armor, into which he implanted advanced weaponry and defensive capabilities. Lasers, force fields, invisibility, computers of extraordinary sophistication—all this, and perhaps more, was at his disposal. His villainous career kicked off right around the same time that the Terrific Trio formed, and they had locked horns on several occasions over the past year and change. Doctor Hades frequently employed unusual combinations of futuristic weapons and unnatural creatures in his diabolical schemes, but the murderous madman always failed.
The reference to murders caught Alyssa off guard. Most of the super-criminals she had read about were just that—eccentric bank robbers or aggressive blowhards seeking attention. But, she was now recalling, a few were reported to have homicidal intentions. “Has he actually killed people?”
The driver lowered his head solemnly. “He has, several times. If not for the Terrific Trio, he’d have killed so many more.”
Dread tightened her gut. Alyssa hadn’t really considered to what extent she was jeopardizing her life simply by moving into this city. Several supervillains popped up after Doctor Hades, their ranks steadily growing, but the Terrific Trio never needed to update their name. She asked the driver, and he confirmed it. Not a single new superhero since Ultra Woman and Mr. Amazing joined Fantastic Man the summer before last.
“We’ll know for sure if Doctor Hades is behind this by the end of the day,” the driver said. “Fantastic Man’s pretty good about keeping the press in the loop. I like how forthright he is. Always a sign of real character.”
“What’s his real name?” The question came out ruder than Alyssa intended.
The cab driver had a ready answer. “That’s none of our business. The man’s got to protect his friends and family. All three of them do.”
Alyssa wondered why other occupations didn’t rate that same consideration, but she refrained from pressing the issue any further. She instead watched Ultra Woman and Mr. Amazing hold their own against dozens of violent unicorns—more than hold their own. Alyssa lost track of the living light, but the junior members appeared unscathed. If they were tiring, they didn’t show it. Ultra Woman even seemed to be smiling, though it was difficult to confirm at this distance.
“What’s the point of this?” Alyssa asked. “What does Doctor Hades even want, and why are weird creatures the way to go about achieving it?”
“Oh, he’s just a crazy guy who wants to spread terror.” The driver sounded certain. “If we fear him, that’ll be reward enough. Try not to think too much about it. You’ll just drive yourself crazy.”
Alyssa squinted at a sky overrun with unicorns, and she decided this looked like way too much work just to mess with people, especially if the superheroes were always able to overpower whatever Doctor Hades created. Question after question bounced around within her skull, each one seeking release: If Doctor Hades was such a failure as a scientist, how did he develop all the advanced technology in his armor? What field of science did he specialize in? What was he working on before the armor? Did anyone know? Did anyone care?
The questions found no outlet. Instead, Alyssa muttered, “It can’t be that simple.”
“Did you see that?” The driver pointed through the windshield. “Mr. Amazing scattered a whole herd of them, and all he did was wave his arms around! Oh, I’m sorry—did you say something?”
Alyssa shook her head. “Never mind. It’s nothing.”
The battle ended in an anticlimax a few minutes and a higher cab fare later, when the unicorns collapsed all at once. Each one convulsed in the same manner, and they plunged to their deaths—to whatever extent they were alive in the first place. Mr. Amazing stretched his neck from side to side while Ultra Woman dusted off her hands. She gave a quick, wide wave to the bridge crowd, and the pair flew back into the city.
Alyssa assumed Fantastic Man dealt with the source of the unicorns after he vanished. If there was any showdown with Doctor Hades, or whoever the perpetrator was, it would likely happen out of public view, which disappointed Alyssa. But that was silly, she told herself. So she wouldn’t see childish fisticuffs between people in outlandish pajamas. This was not something that merited disappointment.
People calmly returned to their vehicles as though unicorns hadn’t imperiled their lives. Alyssa spotted the little girl climbing into her parents’ backseat, all smiles and without any sense of her own mortality.
Traffic again moved. It didn’t move fast, but it rolled in the proper direction.
Alyssa stared at the water under which dead unicorns were sinking.
“I take it that was your first time seeing the Terrific Trio?” the driver asked.
“Yeah, I guess it was.”
“You don’t seem all that excited.”
Alyssa almost asked if she was obligated to gush about the Terrific Trio, if she had committed some grave faux pas by not taking a selfie against the backdrop of lethal unicorns, if her excitement ceased to exist because it was imperceptible.
She gritted her teeth and said nothing.
The driver’s face softened. “I know it seems a little scary at first, but trust me, we were never in any real danger, not with the Terrific Trio guarding us.”
It appeared that way, but Alyssa feared the sense of security was nothing more than a pleasant fiction. Without knowing precisely what Doctor Hades or whoever was up to, how could she feel safe? She thought of Cold War children hiding under their desks during bomb drills, as if ordinary wood and plastic were sufficient protection against an atomic attack, and she wondered if those kids had understood the futility of it all.
“And just think,” the driver continued, “you’ve now seen proof, with your own eyes, that life is incredible.”
Alyssa silently agreed. What she saw lacked any credibility. And yet it happened.
“Doesn’t it make you want to smile?” the driver said.
Alyssa considered humoring him, manufacturing a false grin as she had so many times in recent years. She instead pretended not to hear his last statement, and she gazed out the window for the rest of the ride, registering little.
Images from the super-battle flashed across her mind. Ultra Woman seemed like she enjoyed herself out there. If Alyssa had her power, she would have pulled that little girl off the guardrail in a blink, without giving the matter a second thought.