My fingers graze over a manhole cover. It slows the relentless pull for a fraction of a second. I use the opportunity to slam my fist into it with kinetic energy and wrench the cover free.
Mr. Gold lands behind me, grabbing the empty golden cuff to snare my other leg.
Sharp, rhythmic gunfire echoes from the lot behind us, drawing Mr. Gold’s attention back. He stands up and looks at the warehouse.
I twist and blast the manhole cover into him, throwing him down Polk Street. He rolls for half a hundred feet, and doesn’t get up. The pull on the cuff stops, and I’m free. I jump and run for it. The fish can handle it from here, I’m sure they’re taking care of those pimps right now-
The gunfire doesn’t let up. The tack-tack-tack goes on so long it makes my heart stop. What if the F.I.S. agents can’t keep those girls safe? What if the girls get hurt?
I can’t get the smell of liquor on the youngest one’s breath out of my head. What would happen to her if those men won? But if I stay, I’m almost certainly getting killed.
My life is not more important than four girls. “Drone, I’ve got to go back in, the fish are in a firefight with the traffickers. Those kids are in danger.”
“What? Gabe, no!”
“Don’t wait up.” I jump over the fence with a kinetic burst. The two agents that accompanied Mr. Gold are down. The snipers aren’t at the ledge of the warehouse anymore. Two of the pimps are hunkered down between the trucks, and they have the girls at gun point.
Fucking bastards. Fucking bastards!
I sprint and launch, using all the heat I have. I don’t even care about letting them live, or breaking my own limbs. I’m going to save those girls. I put everything I have into it.
I flying kick the man holding Maisa, and crush his head between the box truck and my boots. The truck rocks hard with our impact and blood sprays out of his pulped skull. The girls scream at my gory arrival. In one heartbeat, I absorb the heat from his body and burst off of him into the other man, catching him with a right hook. My knuckles break. His jaw shatters.
The fire inside goes out. I sprawl out on top of the unconscious man. I gasp and hiss in agony, warm blood slicks the inside of my jacket. Mr. Gold didn’t miss earlier when we grappled: he put a bullet right in my lower abdomen. But my legs aren’t broken. How did I manage to not destroy them against that guy’s head?
“Get up, Mr. Mega!” Maisa snaps her finger in my ear. “The police! They’ll catch us!”
“You’re supposed to trust the police,” I say.
I force myself to my feet. Little hands grab and help me.
“Stand down!” Mr. Gold flies over the fence. The cuffs. I’m still wearing the cuffs-
I’m flipped upside down by a sudden pull on my ankle, hoisted into the air by Mr. Gold’s power. I try to fight but I’m gassed, bleeding out, and finished.
Mr. Gold’s eyes have that hard edge again. He pulls me toward him, dangling upside down by the cuff around my foot. Blood rushes to my head. The world’s spinning. “You have the right to remain silent-”
I can barely speak, but I summon the words. “I helped you.”
“No! No! If you were registered you’d be out fighting monsters like the other heroes.”
“Some of us want to fight real monsters.”
A bright, searing light fills my vision. I can’t see. Somebody set off a flash grenade.
I drop out of the air and land on my stomach. Crashing knocks the wind out of me. Someone hoists me over their shoulder, and I feel the pain seeping out of my body. Epione.
“Heads up, ah hear heartbeats on th’ roof. We’ll hae snipers,” a girl says in a Scottish brogue. Remise.
“He’s got four bullet wounds,” Epione says. Her voice is summer sweet. “One graze, one in his forearm, one in his shoulder that went clean through, and another on the left side of his stomach. That one’s bad. His right hand’s broken. Bruising on the arm.”
“Get him to the van,” Flashfire says. He’s also got a nice voice. He looks like a model. Isn’t that neat.
Say, everything’s going dark.
“Julian,” my wife whispers in my ears. “I love you.”
I am not Julian, and she is not my wife.
I am a ghost without a soul. I have stolen his body. We move together. We kiss our wife, our lips intertwining into the deep of a dream. All three of us merge as our wife straddles us, and guides us into her. She kisses us deeply.
I scream inside his head. This isn’t me. She is not my wife, and that is not my body.
I am a ghost without a soul.
I snap awake in a quiet, dim room. I’m lying on a sofa. There’s a needle in my arm, feeding IV in from a bag. Four girls nap on sleeping bags in the corner. They’ve got snacks littered around them, fresh bottles of water, and a nearby saline solution. They were well looked after while I slept.
I can’t help the smile on my lips. We saved them.
I sit up. My right hand is bandaged all the way to the elbow, the hand in a home use splint. It aches but not too bad. Epione must’ve used her power on me and done a patch job. I’ve got gauze on my bullet wounds, but peeling those off reveals Epione used traumagel to clot the holes.
A light drifts up from Maisa’s body. Another. Like little cotton balls of colored neon, they hover over her while she snores. She’s an illusionist. That’s a welterweight power. She couldn’t register as a hero with OPI, but she could work in rescue missions providing light or something. Or she could just have a normal life.
She stirs. She looks at me, and the lights vanish.
Maisa frowns. “It couldn’t save me.”
“Where are you from?”
“Pakistan,” she says. “Khanpur.”
So I was right, she is from the Emirates. “What about your parents?”
“I have none,” she says.
She deserves to know, I realize. The truth about me. She’s just a kid, and she’s definitely not headed to OPI right now, anyway. I already told her half the truth, anyway. Might as well go all out. “Me neither.”
“But… you are Megajoule?” she asks.
“Okay, listen, I’ve got to be straight with you, Maisa. And you don’t have to sit here and listen to me after I tell you this, okay? Only if you want to.” I wait for her to say something. She just nods. “I lied. I’m not Megajoule.”
She sits up and looks at me very seriously. “Why did you lie?”
“To get you to trust me so I could save you. And I’m sorry how things turned out. The fish were supposed to take you into custody and return you to your families, or at least put you in protection. But I pooched that.”
Maisa’s brow furrows, and she kneads her skirt with her hands. After a moment, she says, “Go on.”
Thank God, I figured she’d want to leave right away. I heave a sigh. “Very few people know what I’m about to tell you. I’m not Megajoule: I’m his clone. Do you understand what I mean?”
Maisa shakes her head.
“It means they made me to be like him. I wasn’t born. I’m like lab grown chicken.” I smile a little at my own analogy.
“That is very strange.”
“You’re telling me, kid,” I say. “Anyway, that’s it. I’m sorry you got mixed up in this.”
Maisa is lost in thought. Her brow wrinkles and tightens more. “Why?”
“Why what?” I ask.
“Why did they make you?”
I rub the back of my neck with my good hand. “Megajoule was really important to them. They made me – and quite a few others- as a back-up. When he died, they asked me to take over his job.” And his name, his marriage, his life. Pretend to be a husband, pretend to be a father. Maisa would never understand that kind of thing.
“Fraud,” Maisa says.
Well, I guess she does.
“Yeah, fraud. Identity theft. I couldn’t do that. It’d be wrong.”
“Blasphemous,” Maisa says.
“Yeah.” Man, kid, I don’t need an existential crisis today.
“Why do you dress up and fight?” she asks.
“Well, if I didn’t, who would’ve saved you?” I ask.
“Those police agents.”
Okay, she’s got me there. “I didn’t know about them. And they don’t save every girl caught in the sex trade. But… well, like I said, I wasn’t the only clone they made. But I’m the only one left, because they got rid of the failures. The girls… if the fetus was a girl…” I snap my finger to get my point across. “The boys had until ten to get powers. I was the only one who got them.”
“I’m sorry.” Maisa meets my gaze. She understands.
We understand each other. That’s good.
Maisa looks away. “I remember the boat. There were many other girls. Some from Khanpur, like me, until they moved me to another boat. Then there were girls and boys from all over. And angry men. Very angry men.”
“Do you know what happened to the others?” I ask. “Any clue where they went?”
Maisa shakes her head. “They say nothing to me. They hit me if I dared to meet their eyes.” She pauses. “There was a man at the docks in a strange helmet, though.”
That might actually be useful. “What kind of helmet?”
“It was white and black, and looked like some kind of skull or animal. He just watched the boat unload into trucks. Then I was put onto a truck and brought into the city. I worked at a parlor for… for…” Her face betrays her calm nature to grief.
“You don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to.”
Maisa sniffs and recovers. “It’s strange.” She studies me. “Even in Khanpur we know about Megajoule. If you are made like him, why are you bleeding? Why did you get so hurt?”
“I’m a bit disappointing, aren’t I?” I chuckle, and the laugh hurts my stomach. Epione did all she could but she’s not perfect. “I’ve only got a fraction of the power he had. He could do all kinds of stuff, he could catch buildings, he could fly almost to space. I can only turn heat into kinetic energy. If I had more, I doubt last night would have turned out like it did. I could’ve saved you easily.”
“You still saved us.”
“Fair enough. Are you hungry?” The other girls haven’t even stirred the whole time we talked. They must be exhausted. “I’m sure the others have made some food by now.”
Standing takes a lot of grunting and effort. I need to support myself with the IV stand. Maisa rushes over to help me. She’s tall enough to put her arm around my waist and help me a bit. We stumble to the door, where I pull the needle from my arm.
Epione’s place is almost a mansion. Of course, when you live in a two bedroom like I do, every house seems like a mansion compared to yours. Even with that, her place is ginormous. It’s one of those big old houses off MacGregor south of the University of Houston, the kind of house a frat usually rents out for their wild parties. Epione’s got the place to herself. She comes from old money, pre-UWC money. The kind of money that started in a big business and reached self-propagating levels.
Looks like they stuffed the four of us in one of her upstairs guest rooms. Maisa and I head down toward the sound of laughter. The stairs wrap around Epione’s entry way like she’s some kinda royalty. Legit marble, with fancy paintings lining the whole staircase down. I try to turn Maisa away from the erotic portraits, until I come to the sad realization she’s seen much worse.
The living room has a big ass TV blaring music from some kind of adventure-puzzle game that Drone and Epione are playing. All of my fellow Heroic Underground vigilantes are here, draped over the couches. Flashfire’s legs dangle over the side of the couch, his head out of sight. Remise sits by herself on a loveseat and watches the game intently.
As Maisa and I enter the room, Remise sees us. “Hey! You’re up! Should you be up?”
“Moi?” I say.
“Toi,” she says back, and grins. “Glad ye’r okay.” She’s Scottish as Scottish can be, from her straw red hair to her freckled face like God got generous with the spice shaker.
Epione pauses the game and turns around, putting her arm over the back of the couch. “You’re lucky the bullet in your stomach was gold! Gold! If it was lead it would have broken apart inside you and you’d be dead.”
Drone elbows Epione. “Come on, start the game up.”
“What, that’s it?” I ask Drone. “No concern for my safety?”
She shrugs. “You’re safe.” Drone’s got little care for her appearance: bed-head, pajamas, deep bags under the eyes, the whole nine. As far as I can tell, she owns no make-up. She’s quiet if the attention isn’t directly on her. Born to a black dad and a Latina mom, she came from Northline, and fit in there about as well as a socially awkward dork fits into a shitty neighborhood. When she moved in with Epione that was the first and last time I saw her smile. She’s my work-wife, though, and I couldn’t live without her.
Maisa helps me around the loveseat to sit next to Remise. Flashfire’s got his head in Epione’s lap. She’s got one hand in his hair. They’re both very pretty, so it makes sense. Almost carbon copies of each other, too: gold-brown hair, emerald green eyes, model good looks. Some people have it all. Though I do wonder about Flashfire’s motives, considering Epione’s money is the thing that keeps our group going.
I pat for Maisa to sit down next to me and Remise, and she does.
“So, who’s house is this?” Maisa asks.
“Epione’s.” I point her out.
Epione smiles at Maisa. “My parents bought me this house when I came to university here in Houston.”
“They… bought you… a whole mansion?” Maisa asks, clearly grappling with the privilege of the wealthy in the UWC for the first time.
Epione titters. “Mother visited the dorms on campus and declared them unacceptable.”
Flashfire boops her nose. “And she wonders why you don’t have friends on campus.”
Epione recoils from his touch, pauses, and then wrinkles her nose at her boyfriend. Then she turns her attention to me. “How are the other girls? I’m still downloading the translator on my phone, so I can’t talk to them.” She shakes her head. “I can’t believe they got girls out of China. I wonder if any of them have seen one of the Youxia.”
“Most of the Youxia are dead,” Flashfire says.
“They still patrol the border.” With a cheerful smile, Epione adds, “I read that they still think there’s around a hundred thousand Youxia left.”
Wanting to steer away from ghost stories, I tell them, “The girls are sleeping. Did they have any injuries?”
“Bruises, a few minor cuts. Nothing I couldn’t take care of. Don’t disturb their sleep, they were showing signs of fatigue.”
I frown and look at Maisa. Whoops. But Maisa doesn’t seem like the type to just sit back and sleep, though. She wants to figure out where she is. “So… who are you?” she asks.
Flashfire leaves the sanctuary of Epione’s lap, and approaches Maisa as if she were a princess. He gets on a knee in front of her, and holds his arm out. “I’m Flashfire. While Epione is the money, I am the brains, heart, and soul of our group. I am the captain of this ship. I am their glorious leader-”
“Oh, stuff it,” Drone says. “Start the game, Epione.”
Epione titters and resumes their game. Something with little robots running around, making wormholes in the walls to solve puzzles. I never pay attention to their games, though.
“As I was saying,” Flashfire says, clearing his throat. “I am Flashfire, leader of this Heroic Underground. I can create magnesium-phosphorus charges from my hands that can temporarily blind criminals. Next to you is Remise, our tactical expert.” Remise smiles down at Maisa. “Her reaction speed and senses are heavyweight superior. She can hear a heartbeat through a wall, see nearly perfectly in the dark, and smell Drone’s B.O. from a mile away.”
Drone growls a threat, but doesn’t break away from the game.
Maisa cracks a very tiny smile, the first I’ve seen at all. That’s good. That’s real good.
“And the lovely woman over here,” he says as he walks behind the couch to put his hands on Epione’s shoulders, “is my beautiful girlfriend Epione, and also the money.”
Epione tilts her head, and grins. “Oh, so your true motive is revealed. You better earn your keep.”
Flashfire starts to knead her shoulders and kisses her on the head. “Her power is to sooth pain. When we rescued you, did you feel calmer?”
Maisa nods once. “She did that?”
“She did. She can numb physical and mental pain.”
“It’s all chemicals,” Epione explains. “I stimulate chemicals in the brain and nervous system. On the other hand, I can also cause a great deal of pain and discomfort, if I want.” She glances up at Flashfire: a warning that says, “Never cheat on me, you son of a bitch.”
“So… you’re all heroes?” Maisa asks.
“No,” Flashfire says, putting a dramatic hand to his forehead. “We don’t serve OPI as registered heroes. We are but noble freelancers!”
“Please stop,” Drone says. “I can’t concentrate.”
“Ah yes, who could forget Fart Queen,” Flashfire says with a grimace. “Drone is our tech expert. She controls machines with her mind.”
“I’ve already rewritten your phone to text Epione all the porn you’ve been watching,” she says.
Flashfire sticks a tongue out at her.
“Why aren’t you heroes?” Maisa asks.
“The Office of Powered Individuals sets the rules,” I say. “We’d have to register to be considered official heroes. But we all have reasons for not doing that. They’d arrest me the minute I walked into any Heroics Center.”
“And you all?” Maisa asks.
“Do field-work for OPI? Fuck off,” Drone says.
Epione looks at Drone, then gasps, and slaps Drone on the shoulder. “Language in front of the child!” She smiles at Maisa. “I can’t interfere with my med-school. Mother would kill me.”
“OPI doesn’t take non-citizens,” Remise says. “I’d have t’ go back t’ the European Kingdoms, and tha’s na’ happening.”
“Heroes in our nation don’t do any real work,” Flashfire says. “I don’t want to join OPI because they’d either force me to fight only powered villains who show up once every half year, if it’s a bad year, or to serve as a super soldier somewhere in South America. The career avenues suck, the rules are oppressive, and the life-style is vain.”
“He doesn’t think he could be a real hero if he joined OPI,” I say, trying to simplify his grand speech. “Hey, did anyone make food? I’m starving.”
“Yes, there’s rice and pizza in the kitchen,” Epione says.
I grin at Maisa. “Have you ever had pizza?”
She shakes her head.
“Can she have pizza?” Remise asks.
I frown. Why wouldn’t she be able to have pizza? “She’s got a mouth and a stomach.”
“Are ye Muslim?” Remise asks her.
Maisa looks down. “I should be.”
Oh. Faith. Right. She doesn’t look particularly faithful right now.
“Is the pizza pepperoni?” Remise asks.
“Just cheese,” Flashfire says. “My foresight foresaw this, and I realized the different faiths of these girls might restrict their dietary choices.”
“The pizza place messed up the order.” Epione winks at Maisa.
Flashfire turns to his girlfriend. “Betrayal.”
Epione doesn’t pay him mind.
“Come on, Maisa,” I say. It’s another effort to stand, but I manage it easier this time. “How bad was my gut?”
“The bullet missed all your vitals,” Epione says. “It mostly hit your hip, not your stomach.”
“You shouldn’t press yourself like that,” Drone says.
“Has anyone called Doc?” I ask.
My friends all look guilty.
I sigh. Oh well, I’ll see him later today. If he really thought I was dead he’d be blowing up my phone.
“Come on, kiddo,” I say to Maisa. I get up and guide her toward food. There’s an archway leading right from the living room to the brightly lit and colorfully tiled kitchen. The counters are fancy marble, the sink and metal knobs on her cabinets golden. I think actual gold, too.
There’s an open pizza box and a rice-pot on the counter.
“Konichiwa!” the rice-pot declares to Maisa and me. “Rice! Rice! Tasty for you! Healthy for you! Yay!” Little legs pop out of the side of the rice-pot and it shambles back and forth on the counter. The display screen shows a cute face.
Maisa stares wide eyed. “What is this monster?”
“Epione got that in Japan,” I say. “She bought it because they programmed it to be annoyingly cute.”
Maisa shakes her head, like she’s seen the devil himself.
I open the pizza box and offer a slice to Maisa. She sniffs it, studies it, and at last takes a teensy bite from the tip. Her eyes bug out, and she devours the slice in seconds. I restrain a laugh as I watch her tear the helpless pizza apart.
“Is there more?” she asks. Her eyes plead for more. There must be more.
There is more. One slice. Dang it. I really wanted pizza. “Yeah,” I tell her. I offer the last piece to her, and she takes it. She demolishes it. Eviscerates. Absorbs. I sigh, and take a bowl from Epione’s cabinets to have some rice. The least Maisa could do is appreciate the pizza I gave up for her, but I don’t think she even processed that her mouth was moving at all.
I pop the little rice-pot’s lid. “Yay! Yay!” it sings.
I spoon a heaping portion into a bowl. It’s hard to do with only one good arm. “Can I have an egg?” I call to Epione.
“No,” Flashfire calls.
“Help yourself,” Epione shouts.
“I don’t understand,” Maisa says, watching me pull an egg from Epione’s fridge. There’s so much food in here it’s going to make me cry. “You all are… friends?”
“Eh,” I say. “Co-workers.”
Flashfire leans into the kitchen. “We all share the flaming passion for noble deeds! Our cause is just, our methods sincere. We’ve resolved that we’ll kill no criminals but instead report them to F.I.S. for proper trials.”
I feel a twinge of guilt, remembering my last act before passing out. I didn’t mean to crush that guy’s head. But seeing those girls in danger… it was rage. Pure rage.
Maisa looks at me, but I can’t meet her eyes. Flashfire doesn’t want us to kill people, so we can distinguish ourselves from other vigilante groups like 2nd Amendment. He says heroes don’t kill. Megajoule believed the same thing. I’m trying.
I cough, and grin at Flashfire. “Hey, I got to use the Heatwave Home Run.”
“Oh, ho, ho, sick.” Flashfire holds his fist out for a bump. We dap it out.
I crack the egg into my rice and mix it in. Tamago gohan, rice with egg. Epione showed me how to make it. I splash some soy sauce on top from her fridge, and dig in. Food always tastes better when you’re injured and hungry. “She says she saw the man in charge.”
Maisa puts her hands behind her back. “I do not know if he was really their leader.”
“Who did you see?” Flashfire kneels down to her level.
“He had a white and black helmet on, and-” She stops.
I take a peek. Flashfire’s eyes are wide. He’s trembling. “A white and black helmet that looked like a panda?”
“I don’t know if that’s what it was,” she says. “I thought it was a skull of some kind.”
“That’s him. It has to be.” Flashfire stands up. He looks like he’s gonna shoot through the roof. “It’s Pandahead.”