An essay by Daniela Villanueva, as provided by Alyssa N. Vaughn
Art provided by Errow Collins
I’d like to tell you about the first time I ever took out a superhero. I was eleven. The afternoon it all began, I sat at my desk with my arms crossed, scowling at my science textbook. I was the only person in the classroom still seated. The rest of the students crowded around the windows of Room 416, P.S. 122, pressing their noses against the glass. The teacher, Ms. Xu, vainly attempted to get our class to follow the correct emergency procedure, calling to them from the doorway to follow the evacuation plan.
No one listened. No amount of practice drills or teacher training could keep the kids in Room 416 from watching Ultra Lass battle her arch-nemesis The Jade Dragon, darting around the buildings and right past P.S. 122, firing her Ultra Bolts through the sky!
I grumbled to myself. Everyone else was weirdly proud of living in a city that had its own superhero, but Ultra Lass and The Jade Dragon faced off almost once every other week, and they almost always seemed to fight right in the middle of the most interesting lessons, completely messing up my day. I was constantly annoyed that all of my classmates weren’t less enthusiastic about seeing Ultra Lass so often. My family moved there at the beginning of the school year, and at first it had been cool. By the third time we had had to file down into the basement instead of finishing our biome dioramas, I was tired of Ultra Lass and her constant battling. It was weird that the kids who had lived here their whole lives still got excited every time she swooped past the windows of our classroom, and I was the only one disappointed that class would be interrupted.
That day had been the worst. My whole class was getting ready for the Science Fair, and I had been in the middle of a very important experiment. I had almost gotten the results I needed to design the final stage of my project. Ms. Xu had been supervising me while I carefully constructed an electric circuit, making sure the different parts stayed in place with black tape. I had carefully plugged my power source into an outlet, making sure not to touch any bare wires. Just as I flipped the switch and activated my circuit, an Ultra Bolt hit the power lines outside the school. Aside from making all the lights and computers in the building blink and flash before going dark, it sent electricity surging through the circuit, burning out many of the components and sending a wisp of black smoke up from the control unit.
My experiment. Was. Ruined.
Despite being the only kid not watching the hero and villain swoop past in their fierce battle, I was the last kid to follow directions and evacuate to the school basement. I stared for a long time at all of my notes and work and at the still-smoking remains of my electronic experiment. Ms. Xu tried to make me feel better, saying there was plenty of time before the Science Fair to redo the experiment and finish the project.
I only glared, and Ms. Xu finally told me that I had to leave my things behind and go to the basement with everyone else.
I was completely silent for the rest of the day. I didn’t talk when the all-clear was sounded and everyone was allowed to leave the basement. I sat in the backseat without speaking when my mom drove me home, even though all the kids in the carpool wouldn’t stop talking about the parts of the battle they’d managed to see. I barely opened my mouth to eat during dinner. My brother said my face was darker than Ultra Lass’s Thundercloud Attack. Mom laughed, but I did not.
Something had to be done.
I sat myself in front of the TV and watched the evening news with Abuelito, my science notebook in my lap as we watched footage of The Jade Dragon using her antigravity glider to fly over City Hall, using the control panel she wore like a huge metal bracelet to command her robot minions. I made my brother show me all the videos he could find on his laptop of Ultra Lass summoning her Ultra Bolts. He was starting to get annoyed with me because I skipped to the next video after only a minute or two, when I found what I was looking for.
Someone had taken a video of a battle they had near the power plant. For one brief moment as they passed over a certain building in the plant, both Ultra Lass and The Jade Dragon started to freefall. My brother yelled as I carried his laptop off to my room, shutting the door behind me. Mom came to get it back (he had a midterm paper due), but I already had taken all the notes I needed.
For the next week, I locked myself in my room and worked late every night on my new Science Fair project. Mom and Abuelito would stand outside my door and hear buzzing, whirring, hammering noises, and a quiet hum like the sound a very large computer makes. They asked me what I was doing, but I wouldn’t tell them. My brother just rolled his eyes and told me to stop acting mysterious and keep it down while he worked on his paper.
The day of the Science Fair, I dragged a big cardboard box out to the car. My project wouldn’t fit in properly, so the top was covered by a bedsheet, all lumpy with the bits that poked up out of the box. Mom lifted it into the trunk.
“What is IN there, Daniela? It weighs a ton!” she exclaimed.
I just smiled.
We drove to the school and together we carried the box into the gym. Ms. Xu stopped by the table where I was beginning to set up my project, still hidden by a sheet.
“That looks very different from what you’ve been working on in class, Daniela!” my teacher said.
“She’s been working very hard on it,” Abuelito said proudly.
I just smiled.
The judges began to make their rounds, looking at all of the experiments, and making marks on their clipboards.
Suddenly, the sky through the high windows of the gym became dark, and the sounds of not-too-distant crackles of lightning and the evil cackles of The Jade Dragon could be heard coming from outside.
Parent volunteers and teachers began putting their heads together and talking about postponing the Science Fair. They started to try to herd the children and their families down to the school basement.
I smiled even wider. It was time to show them my project.
With a flourish, I removed the sheet to reveal a long control board connected to a telescoping metal antenna. It was made mostly of parts from VCRs and old portable radios, but I tried to make it look professional. I switched the device on and twisted a few of the knobs.
The judges walked toward my table and looked curiously at my project.
“What does it do?” they asked.
“It interferes with the digital signals that allow Ultra Lass to control the weather and shuts down The Jade Dragon’s mechanical minions and antigravity devices,” I said cheerfully. “Let me give you a demonstration.”
The judges stared at me with open mouths as I continued to twist dials and check a little screen in the bottom left corner of the panel that pinged like a submarine’s radar. Within a couple of minutes, the skies cleared, and none of the typical sounds of battling superhero and supervillain could be heard.
“Daniela,” said Ms. Xu, talking in a gentle voice like she was afraid of hurting my feelings, “I’m afraid that you can’t quite prove that your device has the effect you claim.”
“Ultra Lass and The Jade Dragon may have just moved their fight away from this part of the city,” another judge pointed out.
My mom’s phone started ringing, and after she talked for a minute, she put my brother on the speaker so everyone could hear.
“Ultra Lass and The Jade Dragon are on the news, but they can’t use their powers! They fell out of the sky and landed in the lake. There are videos all over the internet already!”
All over the gym, kids crowded around their parents, pulling up the clips of the hero and villain stalling mid-flight, like cartoon characters, and plummeting into the lake. There were even pictures already of the police pulling The Jade Dragon out of the water and putting her in the back of a police van.
Everyone stared at me.
I won the Science Fair, but that night, people from the local Office of Superhero Activity came and took my project and all of my notes away. They told me, in baby voices that showed they clearly didn’t mean what they were saying, that I was very smart, but that it was important for superheroes to be able to do their jobs and not have to worry about someone turning off their superpowers.
I just smiled.
They didn’t know about the smaller control set that I was keeping in my backpack. Just in case I really didn’t want to miss another science class.
Dr. Daniela Villanueva earned her first PhD in Electrical Engineering from MIT at 14, her second PhD in Computer Science from the University of Texas at 16, and is currently working on her third PhD in Chemistry from an undisclosed, maximum-security location under close supervision from various government agencies. Dr. Villanueva is best known for her discovery of the rare-earth element praesidium, which neutralizes most super-powered individuals’ abilities and equipment, and as the founder of non-profit organization “Yes She Can,” which works to bring young women of color more opportunities to participate in Science, Technology, and Engineering activities.
Alyssa N. Vaughn lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband, son, and two dogs. She is a former software developer, a current high school teacher, a part-time writer and a full-time geek. When she’s not reviewing comics for NerdSpan.com or video games for ThatVideoGameBlog, she’s working on her own science fiction projects. More accurately, she’s procrastinating working on them and tweeting about her baby’s farts and the weird things her mom says when they watch the Food network. You can read these tweets @msalyssaenvy or see pictures of her kid on Instagram @alyssaenvy.
Errow is a comic artist and illustrator with a predilection towards mashing the surreal with the familiar. They pay their time to developing worlds not quite like our own with their fiancee and pushing the queer agenda. They probably left a candle burning somewhere. More of their work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/
“The Day I Saved the Science Fair” is © 2018 Alyssa N. Vaughn
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Errow Collins