Bronwyn stared at the unopened letter on the table as if it might come alive any minute and bite her. The postmark on the envelope read San Francisco, dated three weeks ago. The only person she knew outside of Manhattan who was too cowardly to call was her supposed boyfriend, George Westinghouse III. Nearly seven months ago he boarded a zeppelin heading west, claiming to have found business associates eager to invest in the new Westinghouse Industries. She hadn’t heard from him since.
A lot can happen in the space of half a year, when you don’t see or speak to someone. Feelings change, people grow apart, and secretly pregnant girlfriends can give birth.
Bronwyn cradled her sleeping daughter in one arm while she read the letter. Seven months gone and seven matching words from the only man, besides her father, whom she had shared her secret with. Business is good. Coming home to visit.
She crumpled the scrap of hotel stationary into a ball and flicked it away. Her father would be along shortly to watch Helena, so Bronwyn could go out. It had been weeks since she had donned her alternate identity. She was getting antsy, and rumors about her whereabouts were already being bandied about the headlines.
A thin film of dust had coated the surface of her workbench since she’d felt up to visiting her workshop on the third floor. The forge, feeding the building’s forced-air heating system, still glowed and set sweat beading on her bare skin. It felt good being here, perhaps the only place she really felt at ease.
The old wardrobe in one corner of the room was one of the few reminders she had of her real parents. Her only memory of them was the night they died, the night her powers first manifest. It seemed right to use it, here and now, as a tribute to what she had become.
When the snow and ice-covered electrical wires broke while they were walking home one night, her parents fell on her, trying to shield her. She didn’t know whether it was that act that saved her life or something she was born with. The electrical current surged through her parent’s body and into hers, but she survived.
Inside the wardrobe hung the devices she built for herself. The specially designed hardware amplified her ability to control the current. The emitter coils strapped to her wrists helped to aim and dampened the charge to be non-lethal. The knee-high leather boots contained modified shock absorbers to dampen the impact of landing. Flying was easy. Landing, not so much. Her bronze-inlay goggles with green lenses, well, a girl just needed proper accessories and besides, they gave her some disguise; the last thing she needed was her face plastered across the front page by a reporter lucky enough to get a clear shot with his camera.
An oil-stained brown duster completed the outfit. She pulled back her frizzy brown hair and tied it in place with a bit of copper wire from her pocket. Bronwyn von Tesla: Inventor, Superhero, and single mother.
* * *
After a week of travel aboard the airship Dakota, George Westinghouse had three things on his mind when he returned to Manhattan to wrap up unfinished business: taking a hot shower, smoking a cigar (banned aboard the zeppelin), and paying a visit to the secret of his success, Nikola Tesla’s prodigal daughter.
Setting up his new operations in San Francisco took longer than he’d expected but the first of his upgraded Westingbots should be rolling off the production line any day now, ready for shipment. Bronwyn unwittingly provided him with the designs and the Chinamen he hired to replicate the devices were hard at work.
It felt good putting his feet on solid ground again. A brisk wind caught his loose jacket as he stepped out onto the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue. He closed it quickly and pulled a cigar out of his pocket before buttoning it shut. It was ten in the evening but the crowds were still dense with ragamuffins and riffraff. Head held high in distain, he walked towards the Tesla building and ignored the pleas for money or food or shelter.
So lost in thought, he didn’t notice the thump on the street beside him until small but firm hands grabbed him by the lapels of his coat. Before he could raise a protest, his feet were lifted off the ground and the wind whipping past his head made talking – and listening – futile.
Westinghouse’s boots sent a poof of gravel dust when he dropped to the roof of a nearby building. He could see the Dakota in her berth, but it was too far away and too late to signal for help. All of the crew he was friendly with would already be off-duty and hunting for the nearest speakeasy.
“Bronwyn,” he said, flashing a smile at the silhouette standing in front of him. “I missed you.”
Bronwyn stepped out of the shadows, moonlight spilling onto her face. “Missed me? Really? Is that why it took you six months write?”
Westinghouse held up his hands defensively. “I wrote every day, sweetheart. Didn’t you get them?”
Bronwyn snorted derisively.
“Would you believe every other week?”
“Three weeks, to explore a business opportunity.” Her face scrunched up. “I promise I shan’t be gone longer than a fortnight at most,” she mocked.
“I came back,” he pleaded. “I wanted to see you.”
“You know nothing about me.”
“That hurts, baby.” They’d been together for three years romantically, and two more before that, when she was just the girl apprentice working for her father.
“How long are you here for?”
Long enough to see if your dry spell had broken. “That depends on you, or us,” he said. “Business out west is better than I thought. I’d like you there with me, but I know how frail your father’s health is.”
Her devotion to her ailing adoptive father had always been a weakness, that and the sense of social responsibility she shared with him. Always talking about giving, of throwing away her hard work, rather than growing rich from it.
“For me, I could almost forgive you,” Bronwyn said, raising an arm level to him, “but not for our daughter.”
A shaft of white light erupted from Bronwyn’s arm and struck him in the chest, sending him spiraling into unconsciousness before the shock of her words could fully register.
* * *
The old Westinghouse factory on East Broadway had been sealed shut years ago, or so Bronwyn thought. As she stood across the street from it now, she saw light shining through the cracks in the wooden boards nailed over its windows and smoke bellowed from the exhaust of its forge. George had agreed to end its operation soon after her secret had been revealed to him, when she stopped him from assassinating then-Governor Edison with an automaton constructed from parts on consignment from Tesla and constructed by herself. His words, like his morals, had ultimately proven vapid.
The fortified front door would have stopped her younger self, but the reinforced steel and lead barely slowed her down. She pressed the bare flesh of the palm of her hand against the door and pushed. She didn’t need the emitters at her wrist – those helped direct the bolts of electricity she controlled over open distance. With direct contact, she nudged the flows towards the bolts that secured the door. The slightest physical push swung the door wide open; molten steel from the dead bolt oozed down the doorjamb.
The front office, the place she spent the move of her time visiting, looked much the same except it did not look abandoned. Papers were spread across every surface and spilled onto the floor. Bronwyn picked up a stack sitting on Westinghouse’s desk and flipped through them. Schematics, wiring diagrams, and metallurgy reports. The dates on them were wrong, though. 1931-03-14. 1930-02-12. These were only a month or two old, not years. She flipped through more papers and stopped when she saw a familiar scrawl on one sheaf of paper. Her handwriting, her notes, from shortly before Westinghouse’s business trip, detailing the theory of and laying out the design of a prototype harmonics amplifier. An earthquake generator, he’d joking called it one night when she’d mentioned the idea in passing. She crumpled the papers in her fist and stomped deeper into the factory.
Bronwyn had only been inside Westinghouse’s private workshop once before he’d claimed to have shut it down, after she’d destroyed his Westingbot assassin. It looked virtually the same now, including a replica of the robot she had melted down at Edison’s political rally over three years ago. This Westingbot lacked the exposed wires and gears of its predecessor. Fully covered in armor, it responded to her presence by slamming its steel fist into a red emergency stop button. The door behind her slid shut. The windows, which had appeared to give off light from the outside, were sealed from the inside. The entire building had been converted to lure her inside, to trap, contain, or delay her.
“Are you listening, Westinghouse?” Bronwyn shouted at the robot. “I defeated your goon once and I wasn’t even trying then.”
She backed against the door and pressed her hand against it. She channeled energy into the door, to melt the locks, but something felt different. She pushed harder, channeling more, when she felt it shift and realized her mistake. Gently this time, she reached out and probed at the edges of the door. The bolts on the door weren’t ordinary. They were made of a high grade metal, like carbon steel, that was not as easy to melt once it had been tempered. The door was sealed shut and would require brute force to open.
“All right, robot, let’s see what stolen upgrades you’re made of,” she challenged, turning back to Westingbot.
Westingbot lumbered towards her. Most of her foes were of the flesh and blood variety and she had to be careful with her power; too much would kill a man instantly, or worse. She’d only needed to make that mistake once. She had no such limitations here. As Westingbot lunged for her, she kipped off the ground with her left foot, pivoted, hooked her right arm around its arm and swung onto its back. It turned around twice, trying to see where she had gone.
Bronwyn cackled as she rode, one hand around the robot’s throat. She pressed the other to the back of its neck, creating a spark gap in between.
“If you’re listening, Georgie,” she whispered, “I’ll see you soon.”
One of the first tricks she learned to do was to form a ball of lightning between her hands. She drew the energy from the building, from herself, even from the robot itself, creating a small, superheated orb of electricity where Westingbot’s neck had been. With a vicious twist, she ripped the remaining metal free of its torso and propelled the electrified head at the door. Bronwyn smiled coldly at the satisfying crunch and large crack left by the impact.
Bronwyn looked for more projectiles to batter the door with, and tried to ignore the gnawing fear that had been growing in her gut since Westinghouse’s return. Her maternal instinct was a wildfire that drove every beat, every breath. What happened to his toy would be a mercy if he harmed her daughter in any way.
* * *
Westinghouse stumbled down the stairway and through the streets of Manhattan, grumbling the entire way. His head ached as bad as the morning after a night of overindulgence. Bronwyn’s departing words swirled in his mind, repeating over and over like a zealous chant. Our daughter.
The Tesla building. An unassuming four-story brownstone in a quiet neighborhood that, in this depression, still had the luxury of only housing one family – an eccentric scientist and the wayward girl he had adopted and made his one and only apprentice. Also home, Westinghouse assumed, to his only offspring.
Bronwyn’s father was a recluse, rarely seen since losing the War of Currents to Edison. Westinghouse had never met Tesla personally despite the years of business his father had done with the man. The old man opened the door now, though. The years had worn on him; the hair on his head was thinning and what was left of it was almost entirely silver. He smiled softly, Westinghouse realized, as a doting grandfather might. That didn’t stop Westinghouse from curling his hand into a fist and punching the man in the jaw, sending him reeling backwards.
Westinghouse had only been inside the building once, but he’d bought the blueprints from a city clerk at the city planner’s office before he and Bronwyn started dating. A wooden bassinet rocked slowly in the front sitting room; a quick peek revealed a small swaddle of cloth that stirred when he disturbed it. Curiosity burned but he resisted its call. He would have time for that dalliance soon.
Bronwyn’s workshop took up the top two floors of the building. She never would tell him if the removal of the floor above her workshop had been deliberate or not. He ignored the prototypes and pieces under construction. He was after one thing: Bronwyn’s journal, where she kept all of her research notes, designs, and theories. He’d seen her writing in it often but the only thing he’d been able to whisk away to copy were her finished works, once she transferred them to archival paper.
A green-stained trunk under one of the workbenches didn’t fit with the copper wires, leather, and scrap metals strewn about the room. He dragged it free and examined the lock. A straight metal rod wedged between the lock and trunk only need a slight pressure to pop the lid open.
Westinghouse tossed the contents of the locker haphazardly over his shoulder as he rummaged. Faded pictures, clothes that reeked of mothballs, a bedraggled pair of spectacles, and a small porcelain doll, he threw it all. At the bottom, wrapped in a red silk scarf, was Bronwyn’s journal.
With half of what he came for carefully tucked away inside his coat pocket, he walked through the debris from the trunk, making no effort to hide his intent. He had an empire to rebuild, a legacy to reclaim, and an heir to raise.
* * *
Bronwyn feared she was too late. The sun was rising over Manhattan and the zap she gave Westinghouse wouldn’t delay him for more than an hour. She flew now, always a risky thing. Short pulses of resonant energy propelled her forward and up, faster and more panicked.
Her home rushed towards her, an immovable object to splatter against if she missed her mark. She was going too fast but she wouldn’t stop. She had to know that her family was safe.
Bronwyn crashed into the safety net on the roof of the Tesla building with a worrisome groan of cable and bone. The shockwave sent chunks of concrete shooting like fireworks from the adjacent buildings where the nets cables had been anchored. Bronwyn detangled herself from the netting and pitched forward, landing hard near the pigeon coops.
“Oww.” Everything hurt but she felt nothing but urgency. She forced herself to stand and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
Inside, her workshop was in shambles. Pausing to catch her breath, she caught sight of the steamer trunk. There was only one thing of value that she kept hidden away inside it. Everything else had belonged to her parents and now lay on the floor, broken or trampled.
She raced down the remaining stairs, the thump-thump-thump her feet made sounding like gunfire. Her father was crawling on his hands and knees towards the sitting room. An angry-looking gash on the back of his head was matted with dry blood and hair.
“Papa,” she said, helping him to his feet. “Are you all right?”
“Westinghouse,” Tesla responded with effort. “Helena. He took Helena.”
Bronwyn ran to the bassinet and saw her worst fears realized. The blanket that had once been Bronwyn’s and now Helena’s was gone. Another piece of herself, and her past and her future, shattered like her heart.
“We will get her back,” Tesla panted, leaning against the doorway for support.
Calm washed over the rage that coursed through her body, erasing the pain, the fear, the anger, the anxiety. Her skin felt she’d been plunged into icy water.
“Bronwyn?” The voice sounded distant. “Bronwyn, you have to stop.”
She didn’t want to stop. It felt too good, too right. The trickle of power became a torrent and she stopped fighting it. She absorbed it all, until she thought her skin might melt away.
“Bronwyn,” the distant voice pleaded, “you’re browning out the city. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
There was only one person she planned to hurt and there was no limit to what she would do to get back what was hers.
* * *
Westinghouse stood on the observation deck of the Dakota, his daughter cradled in one arm while in the other hand he nursed a glass of twenty-year-old single malt scotch from the captain’s private stock. The airship had just cleared berth for its return trip to San Francisco while the city below was just beginning its workday. In the distance, a plume of smoke rose from his old neighborhood. Bronwyn might have destroyed his robot, again, but it didn’t matter. She’d walked right into his trap and handed him everything he wanted.
He felt pretty smug about his plan until the lights across Manhattan flickered and went dark. Worry turned to active panic at the sight of a shimmer in the distance, materializing into an electromagnetic storm cloud streaking across the horizon on a collision course with the Dakota. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nothing to do but watch. Passengers gathered around him to look at the phenomenon. Westinghouse flinched as the storm reached the ship but nothing happened. He elbowed his way through the crowd to look out the other side but there was no sign of Bronwyn there, either. He thought he was being paranoid, until a lady shrieked behind him.
A woman’s discombobulated head, shrouded in a white-blue haze, was rising from the floor of the observation deck. At the sight of that, all of his fellow passengers turned and ran for the stairs. Westinghouse gulped. Bronwyn stood before him, fully engulfed in crackling energy.
“Give her back,” Bronwyn demanded.
“She’s my daughter, too,” he protested.
“You don’t even know her name.”
“What’s it matter? She’s too young to know it, either.”
Bronwyn held out a hand. “Give her to me now and I leave. You’ll never see us again. Separate ways.”
“Or what?” Westinghouse laughed. He knew she didn’t have a cruel bone in her body or she wouldn’t have been so easy to manipulate.
“Or I leave with my daughter, and you don’t.”
Westinghouse saw few options. He shifted the baby in his grip, palming the weapon of last resort hidden within the swaddle of blanket and sidearmed it at Bronwyn.
The polyphasic disruptor made contact with Bronwyn’s electrified form and a pained look crossed her face. The device, activated by Bronwyn’s own power, was designed to shift frequencies every few seconds, to make it impossible for her to control her abilities. Arcs of electricity phased through her body.
“You should have given up when you had the chance,” he said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
Bronwyn looked at him with a pained expression. “You’re right. It didn’t but you brought this on yourself.”
With each phase shift, the light radiated from Bronwyn grew brighter. Westinghouse turned to shield his eyes but it was impossible to escape. He felt the pulses pass through his body. The windows of the observation deck blew out and then he was lifted off his feet, pitched forward, and free-falling towards the streets of Manhattan.
* * *
Bronwyn would have caught her breath, if she breathed in this newfound pure energy form. She operated mostly on instinct, a mother’s and something even more elemental. When she saw Helena fall overboard she sank through the deck, down and outside.
Flying was effortless now. She shot through the sky like a bolt of lightning, catching up with Helena and Westinghouse. She extended a bubble of energy around them, stopping their descent.
“I gave you a chance to do the right thing,” Bronwyn said.
She generated two new fields; one she extended around Helena, returning her to her mother’s ethereal embrace. The other reclaimed the journal wrapped in red silk from Westinghouse’s jacket pocket.
Stripped of his leverage, Westinghouse began shouting. “You don’t have it in you to drop me. There’s nowhere you can go that I can’t find you. When I get down from here, I will take her and you will never see her again.”
“Shh, baby,” Bronwyn cooed, “it’ll all be over soon.” She rocked Helena gently in her glowing cradle.
She released the bubble holding Westinghouse and watched his descent. His words echoed in her mind. Letting him fall to his death was the antithesis to who she was, to who she had been. Seeing how close her daughter had come to dying, almost losing her family again, she wouldn’t let anyone put that at risk again.
“Come on, baby. Let’s go home.”
This story was originally published in Crossed Genres, an electronic magazine that began in XXYY.