The Alien from Verapaz
by Tobias S. Buckell
At five’o’clock, agents working for ICE swarmed through the doors of a childcare center on 35th Street, across the road from Eastern Park, and arrested the children of a superhero.
Simeon got called in at six, when he was already on the Scozi Island ferry and thinking about passing by the store at the terminal for a pet six-pack of something as hoppy as he could stand to bring home and put on ice so he could watch the sunset in his backyard. Maybe he’d even sit there and toy with the idea of getting some of the awl grip done on the boat’s hull, so that he could take the trailer up to the north end slip and get out for some recreational fishing.
But someone had fucked up, the phone started buzzing, and Simeon turned to look back toward the gleaming spires of the Financial District.
Nothing good would come of an all hands on deck alert, he knew.
After letting the buzzing go on long enough to establish that someone really, really wanted to reach him, Simeon opened a battered old flip phone.
“Simeon,” he said.
There was a pause on the other end. “You on the ferry yet?”
“Shit.” The voice Simeon was listening to was one of his superiors, a boss of a boss much removed and high up the heirarchy. Not someone he was used to hearing over the cheap phone. Bob somebody or the other. A red-faced, perpetually harried man in a well-tailored suit and a greying haircut that was aspirationally military short even though Bob looked a century away from any sort of boot camp experience. “We’ll send over a harbor patrol boat, stay on the pier when you get there.”
“It’s ICE. They picked up El Fantastico’s children.”
“They rolled up El Fantisco’s kids in some sort of raid. We’re trying to figure out what dickless judge signed the warrant, but they probably hid who the kids where from the robe. There’ll be a car waiting for you. Unmarked Brick City unit.”
The call cut off, and Simeon stared at the water from the railing. He would need to stop and get a big mug of coffee when they docked.
The harbor patrol beat the ferry in, and there was no time for coffee. The officer on the semi-rigid inflatable looked annoyed at being used as a taxi, but didn’t take it out on Simeon, just gave him a bright orange PFD that smelled of gasoline and sat him down on the bench in front of the steering console.
Simeon thanked him and apologized on the other side. He scrambled awkwardly out with the help of the plain clothes officer waiting for him at the wharf.
“Lars Erikson,” the detective said, showing Simeon his badge.
“Simeon.” Simeon pulled his wallet and showed his ID. They were gliding up between steel and glass office buildings a moment later in the detective’s unmarked, boxy car.
“This the ICE thing?” the officer asked.
“Word already around?”
“My buddy Eddie said they took a super’s kids.”
“Something like that.” Simeon watched a drunken cluster of dark-suited traders stagger out from a bar. Already blowing that Financial District money.
“Fucking baby-cagers. They tried to get the Four-Three to do some surveillance for them, chief refused, then sent us to watch them instead. Our territory, you know? Fucking cock-suckers, the lot of them.”
Simeon felt a blow, the words an impact that left his chest tight and a swirl of reactions whipping past him, each one fading away as the seconds ticked by. He tamped anger and hurt down, looked over, and said calmly, “I’m gay.”
“Yeah, okay,” the detective said, not missing a beat. “That’s the good kind of cock-sucker, I’m talking about those asshole cocksuckers.”
Simeon let the rest of the ride lapse into an awkward silence.
When Lars stopped the unit and Simeon got out, the detective looked over at him. “You have to wonder: stealing a superhero’s kids? That sounds like the origin story for a godamn super villian.”
“This is Brick City,” said one of the officers standing outside the daycare center, Incredible Minds. “I can’t believe they found El Fantistico’s kids. I can’t believe they took them.”
Simeon joined the small cluster of uniforms inside after his ID was checked, and he was waved through. A young woman in a floral print dress sat on a chair in the corner of the room, her face puffy from crying. An officer was holding her hand and reassuring her.
“You’re the liason?”
It was a police chief asking. He looked nervous as hell, sweat dripping down the side of his face despite the soft kiss of the AC inside the old brownstone that had been converted into a daycare.
“I’m SRD, yes,” Simeon confirmed, showing his ID again.
“Someone played ‘not it’ and you get the shit job here,” the chief said, shaking his hand. “Superhero Relationship Department got called the moment we found out, so that none of us had to… you know.”
Simeon felt sick. “Does he know yet?” He didn’t need to say who ‘he’ was.
“No press, and no one has leaked, I think, or he’d be here already.”
“When does he pick the kids up?”
“Any moment, according to her.” The chief jerked his chin toward the puffy-faced woman in the back.
“Shit.” Simeon wanted a coffee. Or a cigarette. Just something to do with his hands while he thought. “Where’s the rep from ICE?”
“They left a statement.” The disdain dripped from the chief. “‘No person is above the law in this country, even one with powers. ICE was following orders and the law.’”
Simeon kept a neutral expression on his face. “Where are the kids? I need to be able to tell him where his kids are.”
“ICE won’t say. Undetermined location. But I have a friend who works the buses.” The police chief scratched his forehead. “He really needed the job, been down and out for a bit. He got it out of dispatch that they have them in the addition to Collyhaven, the addition they made with that private prison company for holding illegals.”
“Illegals like the children of an alien from outer space who has unlimited powers, can fly around the world and shoot laser beams from his eyes?” Simeon asked. “That you now want me to go out and tell that we’ve locked his kids up in a cage upstate somewhere?”
The chief let out a deep breath. “A shit show, yeah. Will my men even be safe, staying here, or should we withdraw?”
“I don’t know. What the hell is ICE hoping to accomplish?” Simeon groused.
“They’re saying it’s a deterrent. If even a superhero can’t be here without papers, and the whole world sees this, then other people won’t try to come here.”
“Everyone knows that El Fantistico’s parents sent him here to escape Cataclysm, who’s sworn to kill him and his family. Breaking the kids’ identity like this risks their lives.” Simeon straightened up. “They’re going to go after El Fantistico, too?”
“How can you stop him from just going up to the jail and ripping it apart?” Simeon asked.
“I’m told that, if he finds them, the cages are wound with adamonite, from the pieces the Department of Homeland Security confiscated after the battle for Brick City, the first time Cataclysm attacked Earth. That saps his powers.” The chief handed Simeon a folder. “You’re supposed to give him this.”
There was a ‘woosh’ outside, a murmur of awed voices.
Simeon tasted acid in his mouth. He didn’t want to do this. But it was the job, right? He hadn’t grabbed the kids. He was just the messenger. He hated it.
He took a deep breath and went to deliver the news in person to the super hero that ICE had taken their children.
El Fantisco would be forever remembered for his role in fighting the Gruesome Five in the skies over Brick City, when all had cowered as the skies had roiled dark with awesome power in the first duel against Cataclysm, who controlled dark energy from his gauntlets of fury. But El Fantistico had also created a frozen ice dam to hold the water at bay against the tsunami of ’83, and even dissipated hurricanes at sea so that they couldn’t threaten the subways and homes near the beaches.
And that didn’t count the thousands and thousands of small things, too many to count. Muggers stopped, bullets stepped in front of, bridge jumpers saved, and cats pulled out of trees.
During the blackout of ’91, El Fantistico had lit up the sky over the city with his eye lasers. He’d been blind for a month afterward, depending on his finely tuned sense of hearing and clicks to navigate by sonar.
He never missed a day of protecting Brick City.
Why do it?
“Because when I had been thrown free of my own dying planet, you took me in,” he told a reporter by the foot of the Statue of Liberty once. “Because, when powers like this are gifted, it is a great responsibility.”
Now Simeon was looking at that same chiseled jaw, the dark hair with curls at the end, and those dark brown eyes. His cape, with the American flag stitched into it, brushed against the ground as he walked toward the steps.
“Mr. Fantastico,” Simeon stepped forward, wondering if those eyes could see right on through the fake calm he tried to project.
“You’re Simeon, from the SRD.” El Fantistico stopped in front of him. “I remember you.”
Simeon’s knees wobbled slightly. “I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances.”
There were fifty years of clippings: El Fantisco’s exploits began when he was a teenager, and his powers had bloomed, but he looked like he was in his late twenties. He always had. That deeply tanned skin always looked flawless, the brown eyes ever curious and patient.
“My secret identity has been uncovered,” the super hero said. “So I skipped taking the F-train over and flew.”
“How did you find out?”
“Super hearing, I overheard a tip line calling another reporter in my office that ICE had taken El Fantistico’s kids.”
Simeon wet his lips. “Yes.”
He handed the folder over.
El Fantistico took it, wearily, and looked back at Simeon. “They’re scared, in there. I can hear it on their breath.”
“Walk with me, Simeon. Let’s reassure them, I don’t want anyone shooting at me, there’s a camera over there from the Post.” El Fantistico’s mouth twitched, an expression of disgust leaking through. “You know them, the ones who called my children ‘anchor babies.’ I would bet they’re the ones who uncovered me and told ICE where my children were.”
Simeon followed the caped superhero along the road to a bench in the park. El Fantastico sat down on the bench and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
Simeon looked around, as if this was a prank, then took one. El Fantistico lit it by looking at the tip, his eyes glowing, and then lit one for himself. Together they took long drags as confused joggers passed by.
“Back in the 80s I used to do TV spots telling kids to not smoke for the Ad Council,” El Fantastico said. “Truth is, my lungs eat cancer for desert and I like the taste. Nicotine’s okay, too. I wonder if we had it back on the home planet?”
Simeon didn’t know what to say. But the cigarette stopped his hands from shaking so much, so that was a relief.
“I find it a ridiculous element of just sheer chance that, had my pod veered just slightly as I tumbled through the Seventh Dimension, I might have landed somewhere like… Iowa, instead of Verapaz.” El Fantastico blew out a long cloud of smoke that hung in the air above the path. “With corn bread, rural American parents, I could have had white skin and blue eyes as my genetic profile adapted itself to appeal to the people who found me. Do you think, Simeon, that my children would be locked up right now if that had happened, even though I still would have been an alien from another world?”
Simeon knew the answer to that, because ICE wasn’t knocking on the door of Amazing Woman, or locking up British or Irish babies at Logan International. But the superhero who’s parents carried him across the Rio Grande, led by a coyote, running away from death squads and crime, he was being treated differently.
He stubbed out the cigarette. “Look, I can’t stop you from going after your kids. I can’t imagine—”
El Fantistico interrupted him. “Do you have kids, Simeon?”
“Then you’re right. You can’t imagine. You have no idea. When I first got the call, the first time this happened, I thought about destroying them all. Every single one of them. Every uniform. They wouldn’t have even had time to realize I was coming for them.”
Those brown eyes were slightly aglow, either with anger or actual rays.
Simeon glanced down at the ground. Just a blink, and he could be vapor. El Fantistico was right, he didn’t have kids. But he could imagine. And even just imagining, he could see the anger in people’s faces at the idea of detained children.
“Wait. What do you mean, the first time?” Simeon asked, frowning.
El Fantistico took another deep pull from the cigarette, drawing it all the way down to just ash in his fingers that blew away in a slight wind.
“They shot me when I tried to rescue them, my powers sapped by the crap they’d put on the bars. You warned me, but I had to try. I barely lived. The caped vigilante, he refused to come with me. He’s a billionare playboy, he voted for all this. But the speedy guy came and got me, so I got away. And when I healed up, I flew to the sun and went back in time.”
Simeon stared. “You can do that?”
There was another long exhale from the superhero.
Simeon had a thought. “If you can do that, you can go back and warn us–”
“I’ve been doing that forever. What do you think all the truth, tolerance, and the American Way speeches were about? And yet, here we are again. Repealing the fourteenth amendment, taking back citizenship, the camps. I think, it’s something you all have allowed to happen and I am going to have to leave it. Even a superhero alone can’t fight millions unless there are other millions willing to stand by my side. I can’t afford the bond payment they want, not on a journalist’s salary. They’re cutting my position to hire more online listicle staff.”
El Fantistico stood up.
“So what now?” Simeon asked. “What should I tell the department?”
“Tell them that they could have stopped this. That you could have worked together to stop it. But everyone stood around, doing their job, instead of stopping something that should never have happened.”
And then, El Fantastico was gone, jumped into the air, a small divot in the asphalt where he had stood.
“That could have gone a lot worse,” said a worried officer, standing at the edge of the jogging trail.
Simeon wasn’t sure.
ONCE “DEFENDER OF FREEDOM” SHOT WHILE FREEING JAILED ILLEGALS.
Simeon didn’t bother reading the article the next morning, but the front pages all showed the same grainy security camera footage of El Fantastico, his cape riddled with bullets, blood dripping down the red and white bars, terrified children huddling under his arms.
The city was in shock.
The city was unsure. What would happen if Cataclysm ever returned? Only El Fantistico had been able to stop him.
The future was suddenly uncertain. And the same ICE agents who’d been interviewed saying that, under the new rules their jobs were ‘finally fun again’ were now reporting someone on 8th Street tossed a bottle at them. And the beat cop nearby had refused to give chase on foot to the perpetrator.
Simeon left his badge at home, crossed over on the ferry, and took the north train to Collyhaven. It was packed with the sorts of people Simeon had always regarded as drains on society. Coddled students, do-gooders, the overly concerned.
But there was an old veteran in one corner with a sign that said ‘FREE THE CHILDREN’ and a mother with two children. The northbound was packed shoulder to shoulder, and there was a grim camrederie in the air.
“This your first one?” the mother asked. “Protest?”
The train rocked. Simeon thought about the fact that he would be facing officers he knew, officers that worked with on a daily basis as he liaised between superheros and the police force.
It wasn’t millions, he thought, looking around at the train full of people headed toward the Collyhaven detention center. But it was a start.
A train full of small heroes.
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