ARC 1: DARK HALLWAYS
Vigilantes are Villains! If you see something, say something!
The poster’s big, bloody warning is imposed over a guy in a costume too close to mine for comfort. Black mask, goggles, leather jacket. Maybe I need to reconsider my wardrobe. Then again, it’s not like anybody in this alley’s gonna turn vigilantes into the Office of Powered Individuals. Do they think the East Downtown area is crawling with noble citizens that trust the government?
A fancy screen poster is next to the propaganda swill. A stylized portrait of Megajoule grins down at me and flexes his muscles. He’s wearing something like a jet fighter’s flight suit but sleeker, with white ceramic armor and a cape. Below him is his famous slogan: “Reach! Dream! Strive! Become!” And below that is a play button I can press. So I do.
The poster plays a clip of Megajoule in the Titan Tower incident in New York. An explosion rocks the tower off its foundation, and all 500,000 tons of metal, cement and glass plummet toward the city. Two caped heroes zoom in underneath: Megajoule and one of his sidekicks, Bedevil. She’s really young in the video, but if I recall, she’s got heavyweight telekinesis. They both grab onto the building and stop its fall.
The clip cuts to after, where he’s surrounded by adoring fans and press trying to get a statement. Bedevil stands next to him, grinning up at her boss. But instead of looking at the people around him, Megajoule looks right at the camera recording the clip and smiles through his visor. “Another ten minutes and that might’ve gotten bad!” he says, and a chorus of laughter follows.
I wish I could do that. I wish I could just catch a building like him, and that people would look up at me and admire me. If I could ever figure out the power well enough to catch falling buildings, maybe they would make posters for me, too.
I’m not in East Downtown to catch falling buildings, though. I’m here to intercept a human trafficking operation. “Drone,” I say into my watch. “I’m almost to the warehouse. Do you have eyes on the truck?”
The screen on my watch lights up. In the middle of a yawn, Drone says, “Good morning, Gabe.”
“It’s 3 AM.”
“Yeah, and? As for the truck, yeah, it’s almost there. Looks like they’re going for a typical auction style in the warehouse. They have about five different trucks for the scatter afterward.” Drone is my work wife. You know, the kind of girl that once you clock in, you’re basically married to her?
“Did you catch heat sigs in the truck?” I ask.
“Yeah, got two in the cab, six in the back. From the size difference, I’d say four of those are the kids.”
“Is there a place I can get the truck before it reaches the auction?” I ask.
“You… can. That’ll be real risky though.”
“I don’t want to put the girls in unnecessary danger.”
The little wireless symbol glows as Drone projects her mind through it, looking for another connection nearby. While I wait for her to get back to me, I grab a free piece of cement off the ground and hoist it around. I transfer some of my body heat into it and convert the heat to kinetic energy, sending the little rock flying down the street. My power is amusing, sometimes. Kicking a can is a super entertaining when you can send it into the stratosphere.
Drone breaks me out of my thoughts. “You got lucky. One Doofus Rufus left his bluetooth on. They plan to switch trucks in a little. That’s the best time. Three blocks over, Denver and Sampson. Two pimps by the new truck. Two in the truck cab, and two in the back with the girls. So six in total. You think you’re packing enough heat?”
“Yeah,” I say, checking the thermometer wired into my jacket. I’m running really hot tonight. 2400 °C. Each of my powered moves costs about 100 degrees, so I have plenty to work with. I’m not dealing with super villains or giant monsters.
Just regular monsters.
Hopefully CCTV hasn’t flagged a masked guy running around Polk Street. If the Federal Investigative Service show up too soon, the plan’s pooched. “Gotta say, I’m surprised there’s so many,” Drone says. “Usually kid diddlers don’t work in packs like this.”
“Maybe we’re on to something bigger?” I ask. “Maybe I can get one of them to talk.” I book it down Polk towards Sampson. I’m not gonna use any heat until I have to. I need to save it for the fighting.
Orange street lights and the occasional burst of color from Downtown Houston slice apart the shadows, so that one street is near pitch darkness and the next is neon daylight. My eyes have no real chance to adjust to either, but I soldier ahead. I’ve got to save the girls.
I burn some of my heat to put a little pep in my step. Coordinating each foot falling and pushing off again with a tiny burst of power, I about double my running speed. Too much more and I’ll lose coordination. I learned that the hard way. I sprint along a tall, metal fence, barbed wire running along the top.
“The lot behind the fence on your right is where they’re gonna do the switch. They just pulled in,” Drone warns me.
I push off with more heat to vault over. I can’t fly like Megajoule, but I can jump pretty high. I slip over into a lot full of shipping containers, just clearing the barbed wire on the fence.
Sure as shit: two trucks idle next to each other. Four men stand around and chat while the two others shepherd girls from one truck to the other. Smoke drifts from glowing e-cigs and laughter oozes from their group.
“CCTV is out,” Drone warns me. “No camera feeds in the lot.”
“Do they have someone who can fritz with electricity or wires?” I ask.
“Possibly. I’d thought these guys were welterweight or below. They all have guns.”
“Shit. That means I need to be fast, huh?”
“Well, you could just call it in to the fish,” Drone says.
“They’ll never get there in time. They won’t listen to a random tip about a few girls.”
“Are they worth dying over?”
Drone knows a bit about my past. She doesn’t know that the lab they made me in had a few policies for the other clones like me. Males were liquidated if they didn’t have powers by ten years old. Females were terminated when the fetus developed. “I’ve watched too many kids get hurt, Drone. I’m not sitting back on this and hoping the feds do the right thing, ‘cause they won’t.”
I use my power to turn more heat into motion and bound up the shipping crates. I’ve got a great vantage to leap in, and if I do it right, I can take the four guys before they have a chance to react. I check the situation with my binoculars.
Son of a bitch, those girls are young. Not one of them looks over 14. Three from East Asia, probably China. How the hell did they get girls out of the Hell Zone? Maybe from the coast, but they don’t call them the Ghost-al Cities of China for nothing. Sad to say it, but those girls are probably worth a huge amount to traffickers.
The other girl is from one of the Arabian Emirate States or maybe from the Eastern European Kingdoms. These bastards imported far.
“Remember, no deaths. Flashfire was clear on that. He’s still upset about that Adrien guy.”
Damn Flashfire and his no killing rule. How did he expect me to save these kids, not get my ass killed, and also not kill anyone? He was super angry about that pimp last month. But he didn’t see that poor Tina girl strung out in an awful motel room. “Thanks, dear,” I say, as polite as I can. “Comms quiet.” Flashfire did have a point though: Killing people would make the vigilante situation even worse.
“Fuck you,” Drone says. “Comms quiet.”
Two steps back, stretch the legs. I keep my eyes on the prize. Four innocent girls that need help. I bound once, twice, and on the second push off, I burn the heat hard. No plan to land soft.
I shoot like a bullet at the four men. They’re still laughing even as I sail right into them.
I call this move “The Heatwave Home Run.” Step one: grab the guy taking a drag from his e-cig, because his arm is up and free for the taking. Step two: use forward momentum and swing around, like you’re in a wicked kung fu movie, landing on your feet. Step three: put a burst of kinetic energy into the guy as you tip him over your hip, holding him by his arm. Step four: swing for the fences, baby.
I catch two of the pimps standing by. They don’t even have time to register that their friend is smashing into them. But the fourth guy falls back in surprise, out of my swing. My improvised human bat goes spinning away like he’s flying from a car wreck.
The fourth guy struggles with his pistol while rising to his knees. He gets it out but I palm strike it out of his hand and send it away with another kinetic burst. I grab his chin and throw him into the air. I never punch with my kinetic power, it breaks my hand.
Gun fire. A bullet clips my arm, ripping through my jacket. One of the two pimps watching the girls has his sights on me. I dash behind the opposite truck.
The other pimp is waiting there, gun aimed right for my head. I hold up my arm. Boom. Bullet hits the forearm but not strong enough to go through. Probably hit bone. Pain sears but my heart’s pumping so fast I can’t feel anything but the blood rushing through my veins. I charge into the pimp with a kinetic burst, my shoulder aimed at his chest. The girls scream as we thump into the truck.
I grab his head and bash it on the wall. He drops his gun, dazed by my blow. I kick his feet out and give him a nice follow up to the ribs.
The other guy rounds the corner of the truck and pops a round off but shoots wide. I let myself fall back before he shoots again, and with a blast of heat I slide under the truck to the other side. I’m going on instinct at this point, just trying to stay out of gunfire. He’s got the advantage on me. I can always use one of their guns, but I’d never used one before and I might kill one of the girls on accident, or shoot myself. And I’m trying to honor Flashfire’s rule.
I’ve got to maintain momentum. Once I’m between the trucks I blast upwards and bounce off the far truck with my feet, up onto the truck I just slid under. The girls cry out again as I land, giving me away. The pimp fires again. Bullets ricochet.
The guy runs around to the back of the truck to climb up. If I catch him just right, he won’t have time to get a shot in.
I check my thermometer. 1100 °C. Less than half of what I started with, but I’ve hopefully only got one left to deal with. I prepare to burn more.
The last pimp pokes his head up, struggles with his gun, and I slide at him feet first with a kinetic burst.
Feet, meet face. Face, meet feet. I smash into him and fall off the truck, landing on my stomach. The guy goes down. His nose is busted and his eyelids flutter. He’s still alive.
I catch my breath and check on the other pimps. They’re all out of commission. I’ll be okay. My right arm aches where the bullet went in, and my left arm stings where the other guy grazed me. It could be worse. I could be dead.
“Drone, summon the fish,” I say to my watch, and head over to the back of the truck. I throw the latch and open the back doors. Four whimpering girls stare at me from the dark.
I reach for them.
They back away, pressing themselves against the far wall of the cargo box.
“I guess I look kinda scary, huh?” I say. My homemade costume is almost all black.
“Don’t you girls know who I am?”
The Emirate girl shakes her head. She’s more animated than the three younger girls.
“Don’t recognize my voice?”
She shakes her head again.
There’s one surefire way I can get the girls to trust me. I take off my mask. “How about now? Recognize me?”
The girl stares at me, uncertainly.
The beard and my dyed hair must be throwing her off. “How about…” I flex like Megajoule, and say, “Reach! Dream! Strive! Become!”
The girl’s eyes light up. “Megajoule? But… you died!”
I put a finger to my lips. You know what they say, the truth is stranger than fiction? Well, I can’t tell them I’m a clone of the greatest superhero that ever lived. But, I can give them a suitable lie: “Nonsense, I’ve been undercover. When I heard that you were in danger, well, I just had to come save you.” I hold a hand out, hoping that worked.
The girl hesitates. But she takes my hand, and I help her out of the truck. The three Chinese girls follow suit. They don’t look like they speak English, and they’re younger than the Emirate girl. One’s way younger, maybe six or seven. I help her down, but her legs give out when I set her on the ground, so I hoist her up and hold her in my arm. She clings to me, knowing that I’m safe.
I smell alcohol on her breath.
Okay. “Do you have names?”
“Maisa,” says the Emirate girl. She’s a bit more confident than the others. She’s older, maybe 13. She looks at the younger Chinese girls. “I don’t know their names.”
“Well, Maisa, could you help me out and hold your friend?” I offer the youngest to her. Maisa nods and takes her from me. “So, when I get done here, some friendly police will arrive and help you. You can’t tell them about me, promise?”
Maisa nods. “What do I call you, Mr. Mega?”
“Just a man in a mask.” I pull out the zip ties Drone gave me to restrain the pimps. Speaking of which, why hasn’t she replied yet? “Drone?”
My watch doesn’t light up. The screen shows zero wireless bars.
The hairs on my neck stand up. Wireless blocker. F.I.S. tech.
I throw my mask back on as fast as I can. The fish were already here.
The warehouse at the end of the lot. I see figures crawling along the edge. Were they staking these guys out?
I turn and hold my hands up. There’s three F.I.S. agents in tactical gear, one woman with an assault rifle, one man with a shotgun, and a man with a golden revolver. He approaches me, gun aimed center mass. “Are you registered with OPI?” His eyes have a sharp edge, and he’s clearly South American.
“Of course,” I lie. I need to buy time until I find an opportunity to run for it. But they’ve got people on that warehouse roof. Which means no matter when I run, they’ll snipe me. “And you are?”
“Agent Javier Aguellar,” he says. “Federal Investigative Services.” He lowers his gun. His two companions are busy: the woman checks on the girls, while the man restrains the pimps I beat up. “We didn’t get a notification from OPI that they had someone on this.” He comes close and pulls out a thin black phone to scan me with. “What’s that mask for? Do you have a power that requires it?”
OPI rules: heroes don’t wear masks unless they absolutely need them. There were no secret identities to hide. “If I’m being strictly honest, I didn’t post this mission because of how delicate it was. I came alone. My power uses heat as a fuel source, so the costume is insular.”
“I don’t know a lot of heroes willing to go after trafficking.” Javier’s eyes narrow. He tenses.
He whips his gold revolver up, but I’m faster than him, thanks to my kinetic bursts. I’ve already got one arm out to block him. Unfortunately, that arm’s the one with a bullet in it, and his pistol whip sends shock waves through my body. I can’t push him away from me though, because that’ll give his snipers a clean shot.
The revolver goes off while I grapple his arms. I don’t feel the bullet, thank God. He’s no slouch. He’s a fish, which means hand to hand training. We struggle with locked grips for a second until I kick him in the groin. Megajoule wouldn’t be proud of that, but I doubt Megajoule ever had to fight on the streets like this. And there’s no fighting fair with F.I.S.
He jabs at me, the opportunity I’d hoped for. I grab his arm and twist him off balance. He cries out while I snake my arm into a lock around his neck, turning him to face his two agents. They’ve got their sights trained on me. I turn so the snipers can’t get a clean shot.
“Nobody has to get hurt,” I say. “Let me walk away. I did you a favor tonight.”
“Like bull you did!” Javier shouts. “We were tailing them to their auction! You pooched it for us!”
“I know where it’s being held,” I say. “I’ll give you that info for my safe exit.”
His gun floats out of his hand. Floats. It turns towards my face.
I shove him hard with a kinetic burst, allowing the force to blow me back at the same time.
Sniper fire rings out. This is bad.
I can’t see where I’m going. My feet touch ground and I roll back. I try to keep my momentum going but my next burst just sprawls me out against a shipping container, my head’s spinning.
A bullet hits my shoulder. I can’t feel it anymore.
I scramble, I’ve got to get out of this lot. I push up the pile of shipping crates while sniper fire pings off the metal containers, and whizzes past my head. Shit, shit, fuck, shit. I dodge out of the gunfire by rolling back across the metal containers. I don’t have any control: my body’s moving on its own, now.
Something slams into my back, and I think, ‘Oh great, I’m done. This is how I die, taken out by fish in a warehouse lot.’
But a bullet’s not what hit me. Javier growls, pinning me down on the container. How in the hell? Wait! His gun! He floated it! He must be a cruiserweight hero, at least. Telekinesis, or some kind of metal manipulation.
If it was telekinesis, he wouldn’t have wasted time with his gun.
His fist crashes into my face and we roll across the shipping containers in a tangle. I hard burst us out of there, over the barbed fence, and we crash land in Polk Street. We roll away from each other.
My watch buzzes to life, and Drone screams over the speaker. “-group led by ex-super! Come on, Gabe, pick up! Pick up!”
“Ex-super, huh?” I say. Javier stands up to face me. He pulls out golden cuffs. Gold manipulation. That must be his power. “I’m here, Drone.”
“You used to be a hero, Javier?” I ask.
He doesn’t say a word. He throws the cuffs at me, and they fly with blinding speed. I use more heat to vault back out of their grasp. The little buggers follow me and snap around my ankles, but I manage to keep one leg free.
The cuffs pull hard, bringing me back to Javier.
“Mr. Gold!” Drone says. “That’s his super name.”
I scream, struggling to claw into the street pavement to keep myself from being pulled to this Mr. Gold.
He levitates into the air toward me. “ You think you’re above the law? You think you can just do what you want? You’re wrong, and you’re under arrest for vigilante activity. You’re no better than a villain.”
I can’t break free. I’m pooched.