What makes somebody a superhero?
Is it extra-ordinary powers? A desire to do good? Spandex?
Beats me. I’m just a regular 13 year-old kid who got caught up in a huge conspiracy that involved drug dealers, super villains, the Department of Homeland Security, and some really mean Internet trolls.
And technically, my sister’s the one with the powers. Say hi, Val.
She’s cute, right? Basically I’m like, her handler. Or her trainer. Whatever you wanna call it, I am definitely not her sidekick. Got it? Yeah, she might have been the one on the cover of Time magazine, but if it weren’t for me, no one would even know she exists. And yeah, I suppose you could argue that’s the same reason we’re sitting on a Golden Gate Bridge cable right now, 150 feet off the ground, with a bunch of gun-toting mercenaries looking to use us as target practice. Sorry, Brynn and Dad. Really. I never thought any of this would --
You know what? Let me start over.
My name is Ravi Rodriguez, and this is my confession. For those of you who have been living in a bomb shelter for the last year, we’re Superkid. Well, technically, my little sister is Superkid, and I … I’m the kid who made her famous. There’s been a lot of crap said about both of us in the last few months, but I’m here to set the record straight. Tell the world how all this really came to be.
Also, I’m pretty sure we’re about to die.
So here it is -- the true story of Superkid.
I stopped recording on the iPhone strapped to my wrist and looked out over the blinking lights of San Francisco. It was cool for August, but not freezing. The wind was strong up here, pine-scented and whipping through the bay like it couldn’t wait to get to Ghiardelli Square and buy some sourdough. It was a pretty view, but it didn’t give me any ideas about what to say next. Where should I begin? How does someone start to explain the origins of the world’s first infant superhero? What would Stan Lee do?
“Ba-ba?” said Val. My sister was almost a year old, and annoyingly adorable. She was strapped to my chest in a baby carrier. Her head was protected by a tiny, padded helmet with a hot pink ‘SK’ logo stuck to the front. Black, chin-length hair framed a heart-shaped face the color of an oatmeal cookie. Large, shiny brown eyes blinked behind her helmet visor, crinkling the beauty mark next to her right eye. Her lower lip pooched out in a pouty frown, a clear tell she was about to start fussing.
“Seriously?” I whispered. “You know we’re in mortal danger, right?”
“Ba-ba, ba-ba,” said Val, opening and closing her fist in the sign for ‘milk’. Now her lower lip began to quiver. Crap. I had maybe two minutes, tops, until she had a full-on food fit.
“Okay, okay,” I said. I felt along the length of my utility belt. Next to the small baby wipe dispenser was a bandolier that held up to three 8-ounce bottles of formula. Thank the Maker, there was one left.
I shook the bottle, peering over the edge of the small maintenance platform on which I was crouched. The red metal cable was about three feet across, but the platform was only 48 inches, max. Not exactly built for lounging.
One hundred and fifty feet beneath us, three roided-out thugs in ski masks and body armor prowled the pedestrian bridge. A white, vertical arrow symbol was sewn into their masks. Their semi-automatic handheld Uzis were, for the moment, concealed. One thug, thinking outside the box, was scanning the bridge cable, but for the moment, he was focused on the wrong one.
“Okay, baby. Ba-ba’s coming,” I said soothingly. I unscrewed the cap from Val’s milk bottle. Removed a plastic nipple from the small, zippered pouch on my belt. Delicately transferred the bottle to my right hand. I had just placed the nipple on top of it when a gust of wind body-slammed me.
I skidded several inches across the slick maintenance platform. My right hand instinctively grabbed for the guyline, and – son of Jor-El – Val’s bottle slipped from my hand. I watched helplessly as it spiraled through the air, spraying formula, before hitting the concrete far below.
My sister had seen it fall too, and she knew what it meant.
Her lips parted, and a piercing, hangry wail echoed over San Francisco Bay. Now, they say baby cries can cut through any noise, be it airplane flybys or the latest episode of The Walking Dead. I don’t know if that’s true of every kid, but I can say this -- Val’s screams were so loud, a lumber mill sawing a thousand working jackhammers in half couldn’t drown her out. So it was no surprise that, when I peeked again over the edge of the maintenance platform, three ski-mask-covered faces were staring directly at our hiding spot.
What did surprise me was the speed of their response. They ran straight for the thin, metal suspension wires that hung down from the thicker red cable I was sitting on, and began to climb. Hand-over-hand, at a Seal Team-trained, genetically-enhanced-ape level of ascension. Within seconds, the Ski Masks were ten feet off the ground, and closing fast.
“Okay, Valley. It’s okay,” I lied. As I patted her back, I weighed my options. If I went back down, they’d simply slide down and shoot me. If I went further up the bridge cable, they’d climb after me and shoot me. Option B had the possibility of extending my life by a few more seconds, so I got to my feet and faced east. The cable curved up and away from me, leading to the top of the iconic red bridge tower like a level of Sonic the Hedgehog.
I shook my hands to warm up my cold fingertips, then fished Val’s pacifier out of my belt pouch. “Here you go,” I said, pressing the rubber plug to her lips. “Want a little binky to distract you? Some binky-winky? No pressure or anything.”
She complained, but took the rubber plug into her mouth and began to suck viciously. It would buy me another five minutes or so, but if I didn’t get something in her belly by then, the three murderers chasing us would be the least of my problems.
I made sure my fingerless gloves were wrapped securely around the guylines to either side of the cable, and I began to jog upward. Val bounced against my chest. Sweat immediately collected in the more padded areas of my leather duster. The visor of my motorcycle helmet began to fog up. I could have taken it off, but preserving our identities was currently more important than seeing or comfort.
I focused on my breathing, feeling like a mite scrabbling up a huge, wet spaghetti noodle. Actually, a mite would have had it easier, because my spaghetti noodle had a metal stanchion every 15 feet or so to hold the suspension cables in place. (I had to look up the word ‘stanchion’.) These wonderful metal platforms were about a foot high, and two feet deep -- the perfect height for tripping me and sending me to my death. My thigh muscles began to burn after the first one, and by the third both my legs were ground zero for a 10,000-acre California wildfire. My breath came in short, whistling gasps. The baby strapped to my chest felt like she weighed more than my grandpa’s Buick.
There was a thump behind me, and a vibration thrummed through the cable under my feet. Our first pursuer had finished his climb. There was now only 50 feet of red, rounded metal between us. He had at least 100 pounds on me, all of it rock-hard, highly-trained muscle. Yellow teeth gleamed in the mouth of his ski mask. His pupils were huge and jittery. That’s not me being colorful – the dude’s eyes were actually vibrating in their sockets. He was on Fortis for sure. I could have hit him with a wrecking ball, and he would have shrugged it off. He rolled his neck, making the vertebrae pop like bubble wrap. Then he began to sprint toward me as if my name was John Connor and he was a T-1000.
I tried to pick up the pace, but by the time I reached the next stanchion, Ski Mask Psycho was nearly within grabbing distance. The next maintenance platform was 30 away. Crap. I was going to have to fight him.
I clambered on top of the stanchion. My fingers fumbled at my utility belt. Sweat ran into my eyes, stinging of salt and fear. I pulled out a small plastic bottle, twisted the cap, and pointed it at the face of my pursuer. When his fingers were two inches from my face, I squeezed.
Poof. A cloud of baby powder hit the beefcake right in his ski-mask-covered face. He coughed, swatting at his eyes. His thick-soled combat boots backpedaled on the slippery cable. He might have trained his body to absorb hot metal shrapnel in a war zone, but baby powder was clearly a novel experience. His face twisted in uncontrollable agony, and he sneezed.
The force of it was enough to tip Ski Mask Psycho sideways. His fingers scrabbled for the guywire, but his weight had put him too far off-balance. He gave me a furrowed, disbelieving stare, then he toppled off the cable. His body dropped like a boulder, right on past the bridge, 500 feet straight down. He hit the cold, choppy waters of San Francisco Bay. The nutjob might have been trying to abduct my only sister, but I had to give him credit – had it been me, I would have screamed the whole way.
I watched the water for a long moment, holding my breath -- and then Ski Mask Psycho surfaced. His legs were sure to be shattered from the fall, but thanks to the Fortis, he wouldn’t be feeling that for awhile. Relief draped me like a wet wool sweater. With everything else I’d been through that night, I was not ready to deal with my first homicide.
Ski Mask Psycho’s buddies paused in their climb up the suspension cables, looking down at their fallen comrades. Then, with the slow, measured movement of a brainwashed Doberman, their heads swiveled back up toward me. The combination of ski masks and weapons-grade amphetamines made their pupils massive and inhuman, like skittering black marbles in a woolen skull. It was safe to assume they were not pleased.
“Yeah, you see that?” I shouted, unable to keep my voice from wavering. “You don’t leave us alone, and you’ll hit the dunk tank just like your buddy.” They ignored me and continued to climb. So much for bravado.
The next mercenary reached my cable and pulled himself up, making sure to keep one hand on a guywire. I wasn’t even going to get a breather. I hopped off the stanchion and continued my death jog to the bridge tower. As I moved, I considered my fighting options. The baby powder trick wouldn’t work a second time. I scrolled through a mental list of my inventory – baby wipes, pureed food pouches, a squeezy giraffe – nothing that could fend off a drug-jacked mercenary. But there was something in my backpack that might help.
I made it to the next stanchion and crouched behind it, my legs quivering in exhaustion. As I pulled off my backpack, Val moaned and spit out her binky. I caught it with the practiced hand of someone who’s played this game a million times, and nudged it back in her little mouth.
“Hang in there,” I whispered, not sure if I was talking to her or myself. I rummaged through the backpack -- spare diapers, chewed-up board books, the occasional stray Cheerio – and there it was.
Our pursuer reached the metal stanchion directly beneath us and hopped over, not even breaking stride. Show-off. He was only 15 feet away now. The rivets of the metal cross-bar bit into my kneecaps as I pulled out the white tube. I flicked open the cap with my thumb. Pointed it at the cable in front of me. Squeezed.
White, greasy diaper cream splatted the red metal surface just in front of the approaching roid rager. His boots tromped directly toward my trap – and then he simply hopped over it. Stupid SEAL team training.
Even worse, he was now only three feet away, his fingers reaching for me like five mini crowbars and his eyes deader than a feral zombie.
You know how in extreme, life-threatening situations, some folks get a burst of adrenaline, making them capable of super-human feats? A mom can lift a car off her kid, or a guy hacks off his own arm with a Swiss Army knife because he’s trapped under a boulder?
Well, nothing like that happened to me.
What I did happen was, I let out a high-pitched squeal, backpedaled up the cable, slipped, and landed solidly on my butt. Real Bruce Lee stuff. The impact popped the binky out of Val’s mouth, and she immediately wailed in annoyance. I kept crab-walking, my mind a blank, idea-free whiteboard of panic.
Bong. The thug leapt over the metal stanchion, landing squarely on his feet. Maybe it was the fog of animal terror that had taken over my brain, but his shoes seemed to have left slight impressions in the red steel.
Val’s crying increased in volume. Out of habit, I rubbed her back. “This is, um, your last chance,” I said, forcing my voice to carry over my kid sister’s distress. “Don’t make me use her powers on you.”
I was hoping these guys weren’t up to speed on the extent of Val’s abilities, but the thug chuckled. Clearly, he thought I was out of options.
“Hand me the infant,” he said in a Southern drawl, “And I won’t chuck your scrawny, middle-school butt offa this here bridge.”
“No offense,” I said, “But you don’t exactly seem like the ‘responsible caregiver’ type. You know how to change a diaper? Perform infant CPR? I at least need to see some references.”
“Quit stallin’,” Hillbilly Thug said, trying to stomp on my ankle. “I might be gettin’ paid for this gig, but it ain’t enough that I won’t shoot you for annoying me.”
“Good for you. Don’t sell yourself short.”
Hillbilly Thug decided to dispense with the conversation, and simply lunge at me.
Now, before I describe what happened next, let me first state that I know what a horrible, irresponsible brother I am. I know that many people refer to Val’s crime fighting as ‘child abuse’. Perhaps, had I been a different kind of sibling, we wouldn’t be running from mercenaries 500 feet above shark-infested waters. Perhaps we never would have become superheroes in the first place. Perhaps Val could have lived her entire life without anyone else knowing what she could do.
But when there’s a drug-enhanced killer coming at you, all those arguments go out the window. Protective instinct takes over. Keep that in mind before you rush to judge me. What I did next, I did to save me and my sister.
I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.
For one, heart-stopping second, the only thing between me and the Earth’s crust was a whole lot of salty San Francisco air. Then my hands closed around the guywire. Gravity pulled my skeleton downward like a Slinky. The thin metal twanged, but for the moment, it held. I looked back up at the cable. Hillbilly Thug gave me a crooked, yellow-toothed grin.
“Gutsy move, boy,” he said, taking out his Uzi. “But now how you gonna dodge my bullets?”
He had a point. The zip-line effect I’d been hoping for had been halted by my weight. Even through my biker gloves, I could feel the guywire cutting into my palms. I kicked weakly, trying to scoot myself down and away from my pursuer, but I barely had the strength to hang on, much less pick up any kind of speed.
Brrrrap! A burst of gunfire spat out of the Uzi, sparking off the guywire less than five feet ahead of me. The thin metal snapped and frayed, but for the moment, it held.
“Swing on back now,” the thug said, “Or the next one goes into your leg.”
“No thanks,” I said. Not the best comeback, I know, but most of my brain was occupied with thoughts of my imminent death. The frayed guywire below me popped again –
And then it snapped in two. The mercenary’s eyes widened, and he dropped down on the cable to reach for me. But Val and I were long gone, swinging toward the bridge tower like two Tarzans on a slick metal vine. Now, that might look fun when you see it in the movies, but in reality? It’s just a lot of wind, muscle strain, and panic. Maybe I screamed, I’m not sure. I do know the shock of what had happened temporarily stopped Val’s crying, so – bonus?
One of the bridge tower’s access platforms loomed before us. There were four of these, connecting the spires on either side. Each was about 20 feet wide, with a four foot-tall metal railing. Plenty of space to land, if you were a member of Cirque Du Soleil.
Since I was not, I simply let go of the guyline as soon as we were over the platform. I dropped about six feet, stumbled, and rolled on to my back, wrapping both arms around my baby sister. Her helmet clunked against my chest as we slid to a stop, but we seemed to have avoided any massive brain traumas. I got to my feet, ready to whoop triumphantly --
And found myself face to face with the third, ski-masked mercenary. He stood in the doorway of the tower spire, backlit like a xenomorph from the Alien movies. The one who’d been smart enough to scan the bridge cable while his buddies were looking for me on the ground. He was bigger than his co-killers, and more muscled than a whole team of weightlifters. And if his vibrating black eyeballs were any indication, he had enough Fortis in his veins to kick-start the heart of an elephant.
“Very impressive,” he said in a calm, creepy voice. Clearly, he’d modeled his style of speaking after Hannibal Lecter. It was working. “But I’m afraid your great escape is at an end. It’s time to hand over the child.”
I snuck a glance behind me. There was another access door on the other spire, but it was a good 50 feet away. Maybe I could run for it.
As if spotting my train of thought, Creepy Calmy pulled a MAC-10 Uzi from inside his jacket. “That, I would not recommend.”
Instinctively, I spread out my hands. What? I’m cooperating here. He was 20 feet away, but I had a feeling he was a pretty good shot.
“You really gonna shoot a baby?” I said, my voice wobbling. “I’m sure you’ve done some rough stuff, but you want to add ‘child killer’ to your resume?”
“I did three tours in Afghanistan,” he said in that same, emotionless tone. “I’ve terminated plenty of kids. Now hand her to –“
“Gang way!” screamed a Southern-accented voice.
Creepy Calmy and I both turned to see Hillbilly Thug swinging toward us on the second guyline. He must have had the not-so-bright idea to follow my exact route to the bridge tower. He came at us, wildly out of control as he let go of the wire –
And then he collided with Creepy Calmy. Their heads cracked together like two billiard balls, and they dropped to the ground and lay still.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I allowed myself a brief happy dance, then I decided not push it. I ran for the open access door –
But a helicopter dropped down from the sky, hovering just a few feet away from the tower platform. A bright spotlight shone into my eyes, but I could still see it was a military-style vehicle, outfitted with plenty of guns and missiles.
“This is the Phoenix,” boomed a scary, amplified voice over the chopper’s loudspeaker. “Set down the baby and back away. You have three seconds to comply.”
What else could I do? I nodded, my hands loosening the straps of the baby carrier. Val made a few questioning peeps as I lifted her out by the armpits. Her brown, trusting eyes met mine. My parents told me most kids don’t remember much before the age of two, and what they do recall is positive. I really hoped that was true, because what I was about to do was pretty messed up.
“You win,” I said. I gave my sister a kiss, then rotated her body so she was facing the attack chopper. “See? I am very slowly setting her down.” I walked forward, holding Val out in front of me like a riot shield. “You want her? Here you go!”
Then I threw my baby sister at the helicopter.