EPISODE FOUR

No. No! This is not happening. “Oh, come on!” I try to keep my attention on the thirteen menacing gangbangers closing in on us and wake Kabuki girl up at the same time. I pull her mask up. Her mascara’s run all over her cheeks, a chunk of puke sticks to her chin, and her gold-blond hair’s a mess in her face. She looks… familiar. I think I know her from somewhere.

Actually, she looks like Megajoule’s wife, kind of.

“Hey,” one of the thugs calls. “Mr. Goggles. You can walk away. Our business is with Ms. Fox there.” The guy talking at me looks as imposing as the concrete wall of a prison. He’s carrying a metal link chain with barbed wire on the end.

I really hope there aren’t any heavyweight powered dudes in their group. Lucky for me, none of them have guns, thank God. If I’m even going to fight them. He just said I could walk away.

I can’t. I can’t just let them murder a girl in cold blood. I’ve got to protect her.

Advantages: oh shit, oh shit, brain is melting. Disadvantages: there are thirteen of them. Come on, brain! Work! I’ve still got heat to work with. My jacket is lined with Drone’s sort of armor, so the machetes won’t be as effective. Wait! Drone! “Drone, come in,” I say into my watch.

“Hey!” the barbed wire thug shouts. “I said, get away from her! She’s ours!”

“Drone can’t take your call right now, she is dead asleep,” a pleasant, robotic voice tells me over the watch.

“Come on!” I scream into my watch. “Drone! Answer me!”

“Drone can’t take your-”

I scoop Kabuki girl into my arms, careful about my broken hand, and launch us across the gap between buildings.

The chain whips past us at blinding speed and crashes into the far roof ledge with a thundering boom. It doesn’t fall, even though it’s not secured by anything. That’s definitely a power. I land and struggle to stay on my feet with the girl in my arms.

The cement is cracked and busted in where the chain landed. I look back, and one of the thugs has turned into an orangutan. “Are you kidding me?” I ask God.

Orangutan monkeys his way across the chain in record time. I try to kick it off the edge, but the chain weighs a literal ton. Two powers to contend with: something that turns this chain insanely heavy, and orangutan dude. I’ve got to keep Kabuki safe.

Orangutan dude shimmies up onto the roof and charges me. I throw Kabuki aside and use a kinetic burst to bounce back out of his attempted bear hug. I rock forward and blast myself into a spin, trying to grab something: fur, neck, arm, but I launched on instinct, favoring my broken right hand in the grab. That’s not gonna work.

His form shrinks, the fur sheds off in a tidal wave of gross, and he swings his machete up at my jacket through the curtain of monkey hair. I land to his side, and kick at his knee.

His body blobs out, regrowing his orange fur all over, his arms lengthen and twist in grotesque ways until he’s back to orangutan form. The smell of ape digs two fingers into my nose. The guy with the chain’s climbing up the ledge of the wall. If I don’t take care of orangutan and chain-whip guy, the other gangbangers will catch up.

Barb-wire swings his chain around, now it’s back to whatever weight it was before. He swings it, and something in the air around the chain warps. I feel it happen. That chain will destroy me.

I jump into the orangutan’s chest and kick off, pushing him into the oncoming chain. It crashes into him like he got hit by a car while I land next to Kabuki. The chain shrieks and spins around him, twisting his torso with its immense mass, pulping him into an orangutan pudding.

Barb-wire rips the chain from dead orangutan and whips it around to lash at me. No! Not at me! At Kabuki! I kick her away using a teensy bit of heat, pushing both of us away just before the chain smashes into the roof. Part of the floor caves in with the blow.

I blast forward and shove my palm into barb-wire’s chest. I pack a bunch of energy into it, and steam hisses and rolls off my arm from the transfer. The kinetic shove sends him flying, but his chain changes weight again, anchoring him to the building. So, his power is changing the weight of this one specific chain. However, it seems like he can only switch back and forth between really fucking heavy and regular. There’s no fine control.

Barb-wire swings around and lands back on the roof. He whips the chain back. That chain mashed orangutan man into nothing. I’ve no idea how the physics works: if I had to guess, he flings it while it’s still very light, and the acceleration is conserved even when he changes the mass. I wish I knew more kinematics, but I’m still learning.

I rush him with a kinetic blast and plant my elbow into his face. His chain flies off target and crashes into the side of the roof access, ripping it open. I grab his outstretched arm and buck him over my hip for a Hane Goshi. I splurge on the heat, hoping the momentum will disarm him. My hands glow from the energy transfer, the air blazes and sizzles around our bodies, and he catapults out of my throw, clinging to his chain. He flies far off the roof, towards the street. He screams, the chain pulls taut, and he is literally disarmed by the force. I mean, literally. Blood sprays violently and he keeps going while his ripped off arm clings to the chain. He crashes into the side of the building and falls down.

That may have been a bit much. Flashfire is going to be pissed.

I check my heat. 50 °C. “That’s it?!” Shit. I’ve got nothing left to get me and Kabuki out of here. I’ve got nothing left to fight with.

One thing at a time.

I check Kabuki girl. She’s breathing, but it’s faint. Those other gangbangers are probably on the way over right now. No way they’re just going to send two.

If I tried jumping off the edge of the building, carrying her while trying to control our descent with so little heat could get us killed. My only real option is to go down the old fashioned way.

“You owe me a drink after all this is done,” I say, picking Kabuki girl up and holding her to my chest. She’s so small. I’ve had more trouble carrying groceries than her. I step over mashed orangutan and caved in cement, careful not to drop her.

The roof access is unlocked. I head down the stairs. The other eleven guys are on their way up the stairs. They’re shouting, clamoring for blood.

I duck into one of the halls on my way down. This apartment complex is awful, thrown together out of rusted metal, cracked cement, rotting wood, and lights alternating between buzzing and broken. The light of the hallway I dash into is the latter, the whole section is dark. The smell of mold socks me in the nose. I set Kabuki down and activate the night vision on my goggles, one of the nifty things Drone did for me. It’s not very good, but it’s better than nothing. I pound on each door, to no avail.

I knock on the last door.

No one answers, but I can hear people inside. I’m out of options.

Kabuki girl groans and puts her head in my chest. She grips my jacket.

“Please!” I call. “My friend, she’s hurt!”

The door opens. A young Latino man peeks from the crack. “Vete.”

“Please, I don’t know what that means. My friend, she’s injured.”

He turns away. “Vigilante,” he tells someone on the other side. “Hay una chica, está herida.”

“Por favor,” I say, summoning my kitchen Spanish. I don’t have a fancy translator app, my watch can’t run it with all of Drone’s other programs on there. “Mi amiga, por favor. Not me. Just her.” Shit, I wish I knew more. I wish I knew more about everything, because I really didn’t want to die here in this hallway.

‘You could have walked away,’ I think to myself. No. Leaving a helpless girl to die is not in me.

The door opens, and a grandma looks at me. She’s got that discerning look the best grandmas have, where they weigh you against every other person they’ve ever met and secretly rank you. “Why are you wearing the mask?”

“Because I’m a vigilante,” I say. “I just want to put her somewhere safe, for a little.”

“Do you know who those men are? Do you know what you’ve gotten into?”

I shake my head. “I stumbled into her fight.”

“Those men will make life hard for my family. For all my neighbors here. I can’t take her.” She goes to close the door.

“How long have they been making life hard for you?” I ask.

She stops. She looks at me. “You are one man.”

“I am.” It won’t change what’s about to happen.

“One man can’t change anything.”

“Maybe.”

She appraises me. “Take off the mask.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why?”

Someone screams in the floor below us. Doors crash.

“I can’t tell you that.”

The lady arches her eyebrow at me. “It is your pride.”

“No,” I say. “If I could not wear this mask, I would.”

“Someone to protect?” she asks.

From the sound of things below, the thugs are moving on. They’re about to be all over me and Kabuki. “Right now, her.”

She nods. “Let her in. See what one man can do. I’ll collect your body when it is over.”

The boy takes Kabuki in his arms, and they close the door.

The door at the end of the hallway opens, and my eleven new friends rush in.

It’s dark, but I’m certain they know I’m here. I’ve got no real heat to work with, and only my training in martial arts from Flashfire’s drills. He’s the real expert at that. This kind of fight is his bread and butter.

Me? I’m just gonna try not to die.

There’s no words. No diplomacy. They charge at me.

My advantages: my night-vision, the tight quarters, the darkness. Disadvantages: my busted right hand, their superior numbers, and their weapons. Crowbars, machetes, and knives, oh my.

I wait until the first thug is almost on me. He pulls back for a swing, rookie move. I grab his shoulder and slam him into the wall as hard as I can. Flashfire once told me the best way to fight when you’re out numbered is to keep moving.

Despite Flashfire’s drills, one fact is apparent within seconds: I’m going to get my ass handed to me. A crowbar glances off my thigh. The pain almost buckles me. A knife swings inches from my face, a fist follows, a tangle of limbs and blades shooting out from the dark hallway at me. It’s all too much, too fast, like when someone’s playing two songs in each ear and also talking at you.

I bounce back, smashing the first guy between my body and the wall. He drops his knife.

Flashfire wouldn’t want me to kill them. I don’t know how I’m going to manage eleven on one without killing anyone.

The guy with the machete pounces on me, throwing me to the ground and driving his knees into my chest. He raises the machete to thrust into my neck, and I stab his gut with the knife, twice. I buck him off and climb to my feet. Survive.

Two more out of the crowded dark. I lash out with the knife and hold my free hand up to guard my head. That’s all I can manage since I broke it.

Crowbar takes the knife in his neck but bends my forearm in. It hurts so bad. It hurts, fuck it hurts. Keep myself divided. I have to. I have to distance myself from it. Two down. Nine left. My arm is screaming at me.

Please God, if you’re listening, please, don’t let me die here.

I grab at the unarmed man with my good arm, throwing him over my back with a hard turn. He crashes into the floor head first, snaps his neck and falls back, gurgling. I grimace. I didn’t mean to kill him. But I’m just trying to survive.

I’m ready for the next blow, but the men at the end of the hall are wary to rush in after the first three. But they’ll get their courage eventually. Better I make the first move. My forearm’s pounding, dangling from the break halfway down to my wrist.

With my good hand I grab the crowbar. That’ll do more damage than a knife or machete, even swung from a non dominant arm.

The guy at the front of the pack tries to back away from me, but he’s pressing against a human wall.

I whap him hard in the stomach, trying not to kill him, like Flashfire would want. Someone shoves the next sucker out at me. He crashes into my chest, knocking me off balance, and then three more dogpile onto me. A knife sticks into my ass. Right into my left buttcheek. “Fuck!”

Someone sticks their knife in my broken hand, pins me to the floor with it. One of the gangbangers lands a punishing blow on my head. The guy above me screams as knives and machetes probe him to get at me. There’s so much pain, from every nerve and every limb, all flowing into my mind.

You see, every object in motion exerts a force on any object it encounters. It’s a simple trick, really.

Does getting punched in the face count? The thug that hit me reels back for another. A knife tickles at my armpit, not quite breaking the jacket. They’re pulling the unlucky sap off me, he’s convulsing in agony.

Absorb the energy of a fist hitting my face. Megajoule caught a building. Can I not even stop one measly fist? Come on! I try with every fiber of my being. Like I’m absorbing heat. Like I’m a spring and his fist is a ball landing on me, like those stupid problems in Doc’s physics textbook.

The fist hits. I feel nothing.

My jacket thermometer beeps as heat flows into me.

Yes! That’s it!

The guy with the knife cutting into my jacket. He needs to go first. I press my foot into his chest and shove him off, adding the heat I just gained.

He flies back into his friends, and they all go down like a bowling ball hitting pins. The only ones on me now are the guy hitting my face and the guy pressing his hunting knife into my palm. The guy hitting me keeps his plan going, because hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Well, somebody’s about to get broke, anyway.

I give him a love tap on the nose with my finger, adding a good burst of kinetic energy. It would normally break my finger if I landed a direct hit using kinetic energy, but I hold that image of a ball landing on a spring, and the energy that would rip my knuckles off their hinges gets funneled right back into my body as heat.

The guy flies back like a horse bucked him, his nose busted in. Blood shoots out his nostrils.

I wrap my legs around the guy with the hunting knife and twist him off me. I rip my hand from the floor, with the knife still in it. I shouldn’t pull that out, otherwise I might bleed out. A baton smacks into the back of my head, but I’m still absorbing all the energy I can. I still feel the blow, like when a dentist numbs your gums but you still feel them digging around your teeth.

I Batista Bomb the dude who just hit me with my power. Throw him right to the ground. My hands shine and burn with the flow of the heat. He screams and squirms in agony, grabbing at his back.

There’s five left standing. The guys in the back turn to run. I need to chase them. But my legs aren’t working anymore. One of the guys in the front has a bat and swings it in frantic arcs, squealing like a little girl. He’s not trying to hit me, just ward me off.

I pick up the baton and hurl it at him with kinetic force. He drops. The rest run.

I should chase them, make sure that the four of them never bother this apartment complex again. But my legs aren’t working anymore. I fall to my knees, trying to breath with burning lungs. My forearm’s busted, and the deep ache of a broken bone overwhelms me. I’ve got a few other injuries, too. Cuts from knives in my butt, bicep, and thigh. A deep bruise where that crowbar hit me.

Megajoule got to fly around the sky and save cities from super villains, missiles, and other giant public showcases. What do I get? Bleeding out in a dark hallway. Killing gang members over some girl I don’t know. Rescuing sex slaves. I scream, half in triumph because I’m alive, and half in pure rage because I don’t know what I’m fighting so hard for. I don’t know what I’m doing, night after night.

I swallow my blood. Better to leave as little DNA as possible. I know I’ve been cut but if I’m lucky there will be too much blood mixed together for them to do anything.

The door opens behind me. “Dios mio,” the grandma says, stepping over bodies. A flashlight sweeps the room and falls on me while I’m finding my feet.

“Howdy,” I manage.

“Senor! You live?”

“I’m trying.”

“Your friend, she…” She pauses.

The bottom of my stomach drops out. Images of Kabuki choked to death on her own vomit flash through my brain. “What about her?”

“She left. She woke up and punched my son, then flew out our window. I mean, she flew.” The lady shakes her head. “You look hurt.”

“I’ll be fine,” I say. “I doubt they’ll come back to bother you.” I thought the lady was gonna tell me the girl died. That’s a relief.

“They didn’t bother us in the first place,” the old lady says. “They’d bother us tonight, sure, but they’ll leave us alone in the long run, and then they’ll get caught or a new gang will replace them. So it goes.”

Well, that makes me feel like standing my ground amounted to a pot full of shit. “I’m going home.” I turn around, and walk out. The lady stammers but doesn’t stop me.

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