Maria frowned as she looked at the darkening sky. She remembered when her short cut was faster and safer than taking the bus. Now, though, it seemed like you had to live in Beverly Hills just to avoid some banger on a bad trip—
"Hey, man, check that action!"
—or punks who did their thinking below the belt.
Maria looked out of the corner of her eye down the alley the voice had come from. Two boys trying to be men were whistling and making catcalls at her. A quick scan of the area left her with no easy places to duck into if things got ugly, so she ignored them and kept walking, hoping they didn’t notice her pick up her pace.
"Hey!" one of them howled in outrage — a hand lashed out, too fast for her to dodge — and she was thrown against a wall by the one she hadn’t seen. He was almost as big as the other two put together, and he had real stubble on his face instead of peach fuzz like the other two. Maria froze as she heard a distinctive swish-click from the hand she couldn’t see.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, man!" one of the boys objected. "You crazy? We were just enjoyin’ the view!"
‘Stubble’ turned a grimace on the objector. "Yeah, well, I want to see what the view’s like in her purse, retard," he snarled. The knife she’d heard flashed around to point right at her throat, and Maria wished she was just dealing with two horny morons. "So gimme a look before I get impatient, b—"
"HOLY GOD!" the other boy screamed, looking past both mugger and victim. Both boys stared in shock for a moment, then ran screaming down the alley. Maria and her assailant watched the two as they fled, then glanced at each other, and finally looked in the direction the boys had been staring.
A man in blue and silver spandex was standing just outside the alley, glaring balefully at the attacker. His cape was flowing gently in the breeze, silvery on the inside and brilliant blue outside. A bright white eight-pointed star was practically shining in the center of his chest. Blue stripes had been laid over silver-gray fabric along the center of his chest and down the sides of his arms and legs, ending in blue gloves and boots. A blue mask finished the costume off, covering most of his head, leaving only his jaw and a menacing grimace showing.
Maria and ‘Stubble’ stared helplessly for a moment. Then the attacker howled in laughter. "Aw, god! God! I love this town!" He shoved Maria aside and approached the would-be hero knife-first.
"Madre de dios!" Maria blurted as the mugger lunged. The costumed man didn’t move. Her eyes bulged as she heard metal groan in protest and the knife clatter to the ground. It was bent in half, almost at the hilt. The costumed man smiled.
"Do you have a permit for that, son?" he asked lightly.
The crook’s jaw went slack for a moment. Then he stared intently at the stranger’s chest, a smile forming slowly on his face. "Nope. Don’t got one for this either!" he roared, yanking a gun from his denim jacket. Maria screamed as the mugger squeezed off three quick shots at his opponent’s face.
The stranger cocked his head to one side, looking at something in front of him intently. He plucked something out of the air, and there was the sound of two pieces of metal hitting the sidewalk. "Hm. That’s going to be a problem," he said.
‘Stubble’ was now shaking badly. "I-I musta missed! That’s it!" He unloaded the rest of his ammunition at the bizarre figure.
After the gun stopped firing and started clicking uselessly, the costumed character smiled. "I’m afraid not," he said simply. He stretched out one hand and the gun flew into it. Then he made a fist, and the weapon screeched and crunched between his fingers. As the mugger gibbered unintelligibly, his adversary pointed one finger at him. "Bang."
A thin bolt of electricity shot out and struck the man squarely in the chest. The would-be mugger convulsed, twitched, then collapsed in a heap. Maria realized that she was beyond screaming. "Did — you didn’t —"
"Kill him? Nah," her rescuer replied. "It’s not worth the trouble. Besides," he added with a wink, "superheroes don’t kill."
"Super…you’re kidding," Maria stammered. A sudden impulse made her look down. His feet were two inches off the ground. She was suddenly certain they had been the whole time. "You’re not kidding."
The hero’s smile vanished. "You’d better get home, ma’am. And it’d probably be better if you waited a while before telling anyone about this."
"What, you think I want people thinking I’m loco, seeing Captain Beacon’s kid brother or something?" Maria laughed. "I almost can’t believe I’m seeing this, and I’m seeing it."
"A…side effect, from what I can tell," he replied, his expression suddenly thoughtful. (At least, he seemed thoughtful; narrowed white eye slits and pursed lips were all she had to go by.) "You should go. I played around more than I should have here, and I’ve got a lot of work to do." He began to float upward, the faint glow around his body growing more intense as he rose.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Maria blurted. "Isn’t this the part where you tell me who you are?"
The glowing man stopped in mid-air. He slowly, deliberately smacked his forehead, then laughed. "The name’s Powerstar, ma’am." he began to fly up again, gaining speed as he banked to level off. "You’ll be hearing it again!" A moment later, he was gone.
"Powerstar." Maria smiled as she started walking again, moving at a brisk pace. I hope you’re right, Powerstar. I think a lot of people could use hearing your name. She chuckled to herself as ‘Stubble’ groaned in the distance. Even if it is kind of silly.
"Powerstar," the black-suited man said. His tone hadn’t seemed to change, as deep and even as ever. His young colleague shifted uncomfortably in place, however. Good. I was beginning to wonder if anything could make her squirm.
"Yes. Sir. The mugger was unconscious, but an amateur photographer caught the last few moments on his video camera. We now have the tape, and the man’s memory of the event has been deleted. The woman was too high a risk to edit, as she has had insufficient contact with mass media to be fully indoctrinated. However, she is intelligent enough to realize that no one will ever believe her." The aide straightened and stilled her fidgeting.
Black-Suit frowned deeply, and his voice dropped half an octave. "I’d like to commend you for excellent work. Unfortunately, we have a crisis of unprecedented proportions on our hands, and we have officially dropped the ball." He turned to face the wall monitors. Three tiny eight-pointed stars were centered on three different screens displaying maps from across the greater Los Angeles area. "We have an Empowered flying around in a brightly-colored costume, apparently of professional quality, making a spectacle of himself in what is arguably the most media-saturated location on Earth. I want this…Powerstar…found. Immediately."
Black-Suit’s aide swallowed. "I’ll have a team on it five minutes ago."
"Good. However, there is a higher priority. I want this office to get the word out to every media outlet from the Big Four’s news units down to Joe Liberal at the smallest community college radio station." Black-Suit turned slowly, and fixed an implacable, unblinking stare directly into the woman’s eyes.
"Powerstar does not exist."