By the Seat of Your Pants




The rules said that all civilians had to be evacuated from the performance area. The police swept it clean, based on a tip that there'd be some sort of superhero face-
off happening in the area. There wasn't supposed to be anyone around to get caught in the brawl, letting us grind out the routine without any distractions or worrying
about collateral damage.

All of which did nothing to explain the eight-year old boy staring up at me as I hovered a few feet above the ground, waiting for my cue. He wore a light blue dress
shirt and black pants, obviously on his way to or from some event with his family. How he'd gotten away from them and slipped through the police barricade was a
mystery and one I really didn't have the time to solve.

"Damn," I whispered into my link.

"What's up?" Mike, my Guardian/sidekick/captor replied, sounding like he was standing next to me and not a half-block away. The choreography set-up had Mike
coming in for backup after our first confrontation with the super villain. After all, he wasn't the main draw.
I was. Surf, the fabulous flying super who could warp electromagnetic fields to her will.
I’m also the one who made a darned hot pinup poster babe, despite my constant complaining that I didn't want to be portrayed like that.
The Agency called the shots and they loved the income from the posters.
"Hi there," I said to the youngster. "Where's your mom and dad?" I tried to ignore the blinking red light on a camera sitting atop the light post. In two minutes we’d be
live and on the air, broadcasting around the world. Right on cue I'd flown in expecting to be confronting a super villain in a few minutes and brawling in the streets
for millions of eager viewers who loved to see the good guys win.
Instead I was playing babysitter to a wide-eyed kid who didn't know he'd stolen the scene and we were running out of time.
The dark-haired boy clutched a Metal Mike action figure to his chest, sizing me up. The battered robot had been well-loved, the metallic paint worn off his arms and
legs. He scowled at me, the tiny face scrunching up into an annoyed glare.
I obviously wasn't his super of choice.
"Where are your parents?" I asked again.
"Away." His eyes were wide as he watched me.
"Woman, we're going to be active in two minutes," Mike said over the link. "Get rid of the kid—can't be putting him in the line of fire."
"You need to go into there." I pointed at a nearby store. "I'll go find someone to come and take care of you."
I couldn't tell the kid we were about to play out a choreographed fight; villain on hero with the outcome already decided. We were the good guys and we always
won.
Always.
The moppet looked at the empty grocery store with a puzzled expression before turning back to me. "I can't go in there."
"Why?" I could hear the imaginary clock ticking away. In a minute Wild Billy Bully was coming around that corner tossing cars left and right as he came at me. The
Agency could call him off but it'd be problematic. We'd already trained for two weeks for this televised brawl and rescheduling it would be a hassle.
"My mom told me to never go anywhere without an a-adult." He stuttered on the last word. "She'll be mad at me."
I bit back the obvious question—how had he gotten here without an adult in the first place?
"Jo—do something," Mike growled in my ear. I imagined him on the other line with the Agency reps, running through possible scenarios to get the kid out of the way
without making it too obvious. Calling the show off wasn't an option. I didn't have the authority; neither did Mike. The Agency could but it was pretty plain with
every passing minute they weren't about to exercise that right.
Even so, the Agency prided itself on never having a civilian die at one of their fights.
Right now that record weighed heavy on my shoulders.
The unmistakable sound of breaking glass and metal came from my left. My heart began to race as I counted down the seconds to when we'd go live. I glanced
around, checking my options.
Run the boy into the store and stick him behind a counter, hopefully out of danger. Problem was the odds were high he'd get hurt by something smacking him in the
head or worse, he'd run back out right into the line of fire.
I could take the boy with me.
I had to take the boy with me.
I motioned the boy closer, giving him my million-dollar smile. "Ever want to fly?"
His eyes grew wide and he held out his Metal Mike figure. "Like him?" He toddled closer, swinging the well-worn toy around in a wide arc. "Like Mike?"
"Just like him." I reached down and picked up the kid. "In fact, let's go see Metal Mike right now."
He wrapped his hands around my neck instinctively as I pulled him close. His hands pressed against the scar on the back of my neck, the explosive plug the Agency
had installed when they captured me. It kept me under control, smiling even as I knew my partner was also my Guardian, his job to keep me happy and contented
enough to play their games.
I gained altitude just as a car came around the corner, sans driver. The black SUV bounced and rolled down the street, taking out two light posts that fell to the
ground, loose wires sparking.
Wild Bill was close behind, right on time and right on the mark.
The camera spun up, keeping me in its sights as I moved to my first position—a perfect target for Bill.
"Stop right there!" It didn't sound as majestic with a young boy hanging off me but it'd have to do. "Wild Bill Bully, you're going to jail."
The thick-necked man threw his head back and laughed. He was dressed in his trademark neon green pants with a bright purple shirt designed to intentionally offend
anyone with any fashion sense. His long black hair highlighted his pale skin, making him quite the sight.
Versus me, the blonde chick wearing a leather jacket and jeans. I imagined the ratings jumped every time the cameras got a shot of my behind. I'd talked the Agency
out of tight leather pants, pointing out I was likely to split them and give the viewing public a bit more than what they wanted.
"No way Surf! You're going down and your little boy too!" Wild Bill roared. I spotted a flicker of confusion on his face but he picked up the scene and was running
with it.
Had to give him points for improvisation.
He turned to his left and picked up the station wagon so thoughtfully placed by the Agency. I knew the engine and most of the car had been gutted out to allow Billy to
pick it up and toss it around like a softball but if it hit me it'd still hurt like hell.
"What's your name?" I asked the boy in my arms.
He gaped at the mammoth man under us, his grip around my neck getting tighter by the second.
Bill hesitated for a few seconds, enough to allow the boy to answer and for the microphones to send it out to a watching public.
"David." He popped his thumb into his mouth, giving me breathing room and ending the conversation.
On cue the station wagon flew at us, turning end over end in an almost-beautiful dance.
"Hold on, David." I zipped to one side and allowed the car to fly by and bounce down the street. It hit a fire hydrant and started spewing water everywhere, just as
planned.
David's one-handed grip intensified around my neck and he squealed, hopefully of delight.
I pointed my free left hand at Wild Bill and shot an electrical charge from my palms, my personal superpower. Not enough to kill, only to shock into silence—
basically I was a human taser.
Bill dipped to one side and avoided the blast as we'd practiced. He shook his meaty fists at me and shook his head, sending the long dark braids from side to side.
"Time to take out the trash." The deep voice rolled through the link and reverberated off the concrete walls around us, sending a shiver down my back. I knew that
voice and I knew it intimately.
The large metal suit dove out of the sun towards Bill, landing between the two of us with a resounding thud. The oversized boots dug deep holes in the asphalt.
David waved his action figure at the shiny man-shaped robot.
"Metal Mike!"
Mike turned towards us and lifted one hand. "Hey little buddy." The words boomed out of his external speakers. His metal suit shone in the sun, the polished metal
grabbing all the light and all of the attention.
Wild Bill let out a roar and charged at Mike, head down like a bull.
Mike put his oversized hands on his hips and waited. He looked up at us and I knew he was winking at me, his face hidden under the neutral mask.
Bill slammed into the breastplate with a resounding thud. Mike staggered back, rocking from side to side.
I tried not to laugh. I suspected Bill wasn't faking.
Mike's body armor was meant to withstand a lot of abuse, the thick plates shielding the African-American from any possible injury. He could fly, fire the Gatling gun
set on one arm and use brute strength against the bad guys.
Not too bad for a sidekick.
Mike let out a laugh, the chortling echoing off the walls around us. He pointed at Bill. "You'll have to do better than that."
Bill shook his head again, still regaining his senses. He'd have one hell of a headache when he got back to his quarters.
Thrilled at seeing his idol in action David threw up his arms and screamed "Metal Mike!" at the top of his lungs. He bounced back and forth, shaking me in mid-air.
With another loud screech he lunged towards Mike below us and fell out of my arms.
"Damn. Damn. Damn," I cursed, kicking in the afterburners as I dove towards the ground. If I could just get under the kid before he became a bloody smear on the
sidewalk—
A bright blur shot into the air towards me on an interception course with the falling boy; easily able to reach him before I could.
I corrected my course to avoid a collision and zipped to the right, stopping above a set of traffic lights. The signals changed from green to yellow, ignoring the action
around them. A river of water ran down the street from the smashed fire hydrant and under me.
I relaxed for a second before realizing Mike hadn't moved; Mike hadn't jumped for the kid. He looked past me with his stoic red LED eyes. I spun around and
followed his gaze.
Wild Bill landed behind me, his massive leap carrying him half a city block. I blinked, seeing the boy wrapped in his massive arms like a rag doll.
David looked up at the massive man cradling him and let out a shriek.
Bill looked down at the terrified child, a shocked expression on his supposedly evil face.
"Oh, double damn." Mike's curse reverberated through my skull courtesy of the invisible invisible transmitter/receiver set in my jaw. It allowed us to communicate
without letting the public hear and coordinate fights like this. "Bill couldn't help himself. Had to catch the kid."
"Now what?" I flew over near Mike, uncertain what to do. We were still rolling and the Agency wasn't keen on improvisation. You hit your mark and you didn't
deviate—when you were dealing with superpowers that could shatter steel or melt glass you didn't want to make any mistakes.
"Follow my lead," Mike murmured. He pointed his armored arm at Wild Bill with a dramatic flourish. "How dare you take an innocent boy hostage!"
Bill glanced our way, his face a mixture of fear and confusion. He'd done the right thing, done what anyone else would have. Except he was supposed to be a super
villain and super villains didn't save kids.
I hovered there, my mind blank. This was turning into a disaster and I knew the Agency wasn't going to be happy.
"Jo—get your head in the game and say something," Mike whispered over the link. "We're flying by the seat of our pants here and I need you to be in yours."
"Yeah." I winced inside at the lame phrasing. Improv wasn't my strong suit. "How dare you!" I wagged a finger at him. "You hurt one hair on that sweet boy's head
and I'll make you regret the day you were born."
Bill paused in the center of the street, David snug in his arms. I knew Dan, his Guardian, would be screaming in his ear, giving him instructions on how to get out of
this situation. Unlike me, Bill's Guardian wasn't on the stage, hidden instead nearby in a bunker and watching it all through the remote cameras.
Everyone waiting impatiently for something to happen.
He could have dropped the kid but it'd look silly; the pint-sized hostage breaking away from the giant. Not in keeping with his tough bad-guy image. Instead he
increased his grip on David, keeping him tight against his chest.
Bill shook his head and laughed. "Not today, Metal Mike. I'm going to take this boy and turn him into one of my minions, maybe my sidekick!"
David, as if on cue, shrieked and smacked the massive man on the jaw with the Metal Mike toy. It was a childish tap but enough to make me wince.
Terrifying kids wasn't what we did.
We were supposed to be entertaining them.
Bill leapt into the air again, his size twelve feet propelling him to the rooftop of a nearby warehouse. David howled and clutched at him for dear life as they flew
away from us.
"Catch me if you can," he bellowed. He smashed his boot down and created a hole, the debris falling through to the dark interior. With a roar he dropped down
through the gap and disappeared from sight. David's frantic cries faded within seconds, muffled by the vast space beneath us.
"Keep playing along," Mike whispered in my ear. Safe inside his armored suit he didn't have to worry about anyone seeing him talking to me on the link about
Agency business, about the show. "Fly up and go into the warehouse. They're slapping mobile cameras in there as we speak. Dawdle a bit, maybe say something."
He rose on pillars of fire, his boots spewing out flames and smoke. It took a lot to get the old suit going but when it flew it looked beautiful. He headed for the
building as I struck a pose, waving my hand in the air.
"We're coming for you, Wild Bill. You'll regret the day you took a hostage in front of Surf and Metal Mike." I zipped towards the hole, charging up as I went—
gathering the electromagnetic waves around me so I could "shoot" Wild Billy when it was time.
We were supposed to toss cars around and knock down a few empty buildings before I got Bill and we all went home. Now I had to be ready to tase poor Bill at a
moment's notice and he had to be ready to go down and stay down.
Mike thudded onto the rooftop before I got there, his thick metal feet sending shockwaves through the concrete. I stopped just above the hole and gave Mike a salute
before dropping into the darkness to take the lead.
I didn't have infrared vision like Mike so I relied on the slats of sunlight forcing its way through the broken windows to show me the setting. The warehouse had
been some sort of factory with big machinery everywhere; catwalks and pillars and pipes sticking out at odd ends. Great for an exhibition of my flying skills and for
playing hide and seek.
"Jog a little to the left. He's in the far corner so we don't want to come up on him too quickly," Mike said. I heard the hiss of jump jets as he flew in behind me, his
helmet giving him the eyesight I desperately needed.
"You can't hide from us Wild Bill," I shouted, putting my hands on my hips and voguing just a bit. "Do the right thing and let David go." Those pinup posters don't
sell themselves.
"Let the kid go and we'll go easy on you," Mike added, his amplified voice reverberating off the walls. "If not Surf and I will hunt you down like the dog you are."
I winced at hearing my official name. In my mind I was still Jo Tanis, former bookstore clerk. To anyone else I was Surf, superhero.
A fake superhero.
"Wild Bill. This is your last warning." Mike's words brought me back into the here and now with a resounding thud. He turned towards me, his red eyes glowing in
the dim light.
"You don't know who you're dealing with," Wild Bill shouted. I could imagine him pounding his chest with one hand, gripping David tight in the other. Letting the
kid loose in this deathtrap could be more dangerous than having him in the middle of a super fight. One wrong step and he could disappear down a hole or have some
piece of heavy equipment fall on him. Bill had to keep hold until the right time for us to save David.
"I'm Wild Bill Bully, the baddest guy this side of Chicago. Challenge me at your peril!"
I rolled my eyes at the cliché dialogue. The Agency definitely needed to add a class in improvisation.
Mike waved me off to the left as he went to the right, his metal suit catching and reflecting the dim light into a thousand sparkly stars. I kept near the roof as I flew
along, almost invisible in the black jacket and jeans.
The warehouse was a nightmare to negotiate with my limited vision and I came within inches of smacking my face into a steel wall more than once. But I was
keeping pace with Mike and we'd have this little strange scenario over and done with in a few minutes and we could go back to our penthouse in Niagara Falls and
wait for the next time we were needed for a show.
"Okay this is how it's going down," Mike said in my ear. "You go in from one side, me from the other. Bill's going to let go of the kid and he's going to run away—
you blast Bill and knock him out while
I go save the kid before he falls off or into something."
"His name is David."
"David. I'll save David while you hit Bill. Keep it light; he's ready to take a fall."
We were advancing on Bill's position at the right speed, just enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. I spotted Bill's massive shadow behind one of
the large metal vats, the warped darkness wavering and shaking as he held onto the struggling little boy.
"Don't worry, David. We're coming," I shouted. "If you harm that child Wild Bill, I won't be responsible for what I do to you." "Nice," Mike whispered.
I flipped my blonde ponytail back over one shoulder and pointed at the gentle giant. "This is your last warning Bill. Let the kid go." Mike made a clicking noise with
his teeth, giving the signal.
I ducked out from behind a concrete pillar, hands out in front of me and ready to fire. Sparks shot from my palms; the electrical charge ready and waited to be
released.
I blinked, not sure at what I was seeing.
Wild Bill Bully, massive muscled man of madness, squealed as David tugged on his long dark hair. Tears streamed from his eyes as he tried to grab the little boy
who twisted and turned from side to side, not letting the giant get a firm grip on him.
The young boy had somehow climbed onto his shoulders and was pummeling Bill from behind, smashing his Metal Mike action figure into the super's head again and
again. Bill spun around and around like a fat frantic top, any plans of following our ad hoc routine gone.
I wasn't sure if I wanted to laugh or scream. The sight of Bill being smacked around by a little one that barely came up to his waist was priceless.
I wasn't sure how it was going to affect the ratings, however. This was getting far and away from just having a civilian in harm's way. This was beginning to rewrite
our history as heroes and villains and put us all in danger.
"Oh crap," Mike moaned over the link. He pointed his Gatling gun at Bill and assumed an aggressive pose as he landed not far from the beleaguered super.
He cleared his throat before hitting the external speakers and lowering his voice. "Let the child go."
"I want to," Bill yelled. "I want to—" His words were cut off by the shrieking boy.
Options were dwindling fast. I spotted the camera drone off to one side, transmitting our scenario to the adoring public who were waiting for a dramatic resolution. I
could shoot Bill but it'd hit the boy as well and I wasn't sure that'd be a Good Thing. Mike's Gatling gun was equipped with rubber bullets but that didn't guarantee
David wouldn't be injured.
I was supposed to be the leader, the one calling the shots, and right now a kid younger than my T-shirt held all the cards.
This is why we didn’t put kids in our scenarios. Too unpredictable.
"Damn," Mike growled. I could imagine the shouted three-way conversation going on between Mike, Bill's Guardian and Bill himself.
Bill suddenly grabbed his chest and let out a horrific scream. I flinched but kept my hands up in front of me, palms towards the super villain.
"Not the ears! Not the ears!" He yowled again. "You've found my secret weakness. Curse you!" I tried not to giggle.
Reinvigorated by Bill's yelp David focused his attack on the ears, tugging and pulling them. I could have sworn I saw them stretch, turning Bill into some sort of
warped elf.
Bill fell to his knees. His hands still flailed around but he wasn't actively trying to grab David. "My weakness—how did you find my weakness?"
Mike landed not far from the pair. He lowered his arm and put his oversized hands on his hips. "Good work David. You've discovered Wild Bill Bully's biggest
vulnerability, something we hadn't discovered yet." Mike struck a heroic pose. "You're the hero today."
I picked up the thread as the kid looked at Mike, his eyes widening as he realized his hero was complimenting him.
I nodded. "You're right. There must be something about his ears, some sort of muscular deformity that allows you to inflict so much pain."
In response David yanked hard on both ears. Tears streamed down Bill's face as he dropped to his knees, the little boy still riding his shoulders. He might be playing
along to get us out of this situation but he was in real pain. I hoped they'd have some icepacks ready for when he got back to the barracks.
"I think that's enough punishment for today, David," I said. "Why don't you head on over to Metal Mike and I'll put this bad boy down for the count."
Obediently David hopped off the super villain's back and raced towards Mike, still clutching his action figure.
"Thank you," Bill moaned, just loud enough for me to hear. He clapped his hands over the red, swollen ears and looked up at me, silently pleading to be knocked out
of his pain.
"You're welcome." I shot him with both palms.
Bill collapsed onto the cold concrete with something that sounded like a sigh of relief. Sparking blue bolts danced over his body for a second before disappearing. I
watched him for a second, seeing his chest rise and fall with regular breathing. We'd practiced this for days and I knew I hadn't delivered enough of a zap to kill him
but I constantly worried about accidents. I was still relatively new to this game and was learning the limits of my powers.
He'd be out for a few minutes, just long enough for us to wrap up. If Bill stayed unconscious after the cameras went off a crew would come out of the woodwork and
drag him off to the infirmary to be checked over.
The Agency had spent a goodly amount of money into training him —they weren't going to be happy if they didn't get a suitable return on their investment.
David climbed into Mike's arms and then onto his back, letting out a squeal of joy. "Metal Mike! Metal Mike!" His hands tried to reach around Mike's neck and fell
short, the thick armor keeping the boy from hugging him.
Mike swung the kid down into his arms, cradling him like a baby. It was probably the safest way to fly and I was sure David wasn't about to jump out or try to get
away.
Mike laughed as he hit the jump jets and began to rise, white smoke billowing out of his exhaust vents on his backpack and boots. "Let's get you back to your parents
little buddy. You've done enough for today."
The large metal suit moved past me at a fraction of its possible speed, the youngster laughing as he rode with his idol through the abandoned warehouse towards the
exit.
"Do the final scene Surf," Mike shot over the private link. "I'll do the outside handoff to his parents and we'll be done."
I landed by Bill. If he had recovered he wasn't showing it, keeping his eyes shut and not moving. I suspected he was enjoying the peace and quiet.
I pointed at the prone super villain, shaking my index finger with authority. "Let this be a lesson to you Wild Bill Bully. You keep on with your evil ways and we'll
keep on putting you down. This little stunt should earn you a long, long time in jail." I paused and considered mentioning having him change sides. It wasn't in the
original speech and I knew it was a rare event when the Agency let supers flip-flop.
In the end I decided to keep playing it safe. "Maybe next time you'll think twice before taking hostages and putting children in danger."
I knew it'd just be a matter of time before they put him back into rotation to fight some other heroes but the kidnapping tag would be an interesting addition to his
portfolio. Maybe they could work something else out in the future to have him "kidnap" someone else.
It was something to consider, a new storyline to weave thanks to David's interference.
I posed in front of Bill's body long enough for the cameras to get a final shot and waited for the red lights to go off.
The cameras went dead, leaving us alone in the empty warehouse.
Bill moaned and shook his head. "Son of a bitch. You got a sweet punch sister." He touched his ears, wincing. "Damned kid just about ripped them off."
"Great idea about the weakness." I helped him to his feet.
He wobbled for a second and put one mammoth hand on my shoulder for support. "Dan figured it out. Either that or I go all Samson with the long hair." He laughed
and tossed his ponytail over one shoulder. "Not cutting this beauty for anyone."
"Nice dancing with you." I nodded towards the far doors. "Until next time."
"Next time," he repeated as he staggered towards the exit and his Guardian, ready to be shipped back to his quarters until needed again. "Just don't bring the kid."
"It wasn't my idea," I groused as I flew towards the hole in the roof.
Mike met me not far from the warehouse, kid-free. He hovered over the street as it began to fill with civilians, the police barricades having been removed. We
stayed there in the air as the cell phones came out and started snapping pictures, the adoring public grateful for their heroes putting down yet another bad guy and
saving the day.
"It was supposed to be a hell of a brawl." The disappointment in his voice was evident. He'd been looking forward to having a throwdown fight with Bill, metal man
versus raw strength. We'd practiced it for weeks; planned every move up to and including a gas line explosion that would have tossed me far from the battle while
the two strongmen wrestled each other to the ground. The choreographers had gone wild with this one and promised high ratings.
Instead we'd fought through an improvised scenario thanks to a little boy who just wanted to be close to his idols. I didn't ask Mike if we'd hit the ceiling with the
ratings; his downcast mood told me we'd missed our chance at the golden ring, a chance to move up in the ranks and fight better villains, get more air time and more
fame.
"Next time." I patted Mike's armored shoulder. "Besides I'm willing to bet sales of that action figure are going to go through the roof." I flexed my arm. "And
hopefully they'll pick up one of mine to go along with you. After all, we are a team."
"Yeah. We are." Mike tapped my jaw lightly with his armored hand. He may have been my Gaurdian, but he was also my lover.
Maybe that'd count for something in the future. Until then we'd have to keep on playing the game, both of us.
I waved to the crowd but my heart wasn't in it. I spotted David to one side, sitting on his father's shoulders and babbling to anyone who would listen. He waved his
action figure at me with a wide grin as he continued to regale the crowd with his story of how he got to be a hero.
"Time for us to fly, Surf." Sensing my mood Mike motioned for me to grab hold of his arm, allowing him to pull me along and save me the energy of flying. "What
say I order us in a couple of steaks and we have ourselves a nice little party?"
I forced a smile, knowing he'd keep on trying to cheer me up until he succeeded. The crowd below us hooted and cheered as we rose into the air, a super couple, the
amazing Surf and her sidekick, Metal Mike.
"Think of it this way—maybe next time we can get a kid to start yanking on your hair." Mike gained altitude until we were high over the city. "Can't be me 'cause I'm
too pretty."
"And bald," I added. I gave David one last look. "Well at least we made his day. He'll be talking about this for years."
"Yep," Mike said. "We're super heroes and that isn't ever going to stop. So keep on smiling."
"Don't have a choice," I whispered as we rose into the air. "If I don't I'm going to start screaming and never stop."