“Home Run?” I ask no one in particular. None of my friends answer me.
Drone flips between a few different channels. It’s all the same story.
“Who is this mysterious Home Run?” a dolled up newscaster lady asks, staring at the camera like a stern teacher. “What are his powers? We’ve got reports coming in of his exploits over this last week. We do know for sure that the FIS testimony has him working with notable members of 2nd Amendment, a vigilante terrorist group, and a few other masked individuals. What they wanted at North Port is unknown, but law enforcement is looking into the matter. We’re asking that all sightings of Home Run be reported to the FIS.”
Everyone in the room is entranced by the trainwreck we’re watching. Remise stammers, Epione’s mouth hangs open. Flashfire’s frowning, his jaw tightening with each new clip. Maisa is quiet, her head tilted. “If you happen to encounter him-” Drone flips the channel.
Spanish Grandma is on the TV. She’s stoic. “He came and killed these men in my hallway.” She’s not done talking but the clip cuts out, to a reporter.
“Four bodies were found in the apartment complex, all with multiple lacerations and concussive wounds,” the well dressed lady says.
The clip cuts back to Spanish Grandma, who continues, “We didn’t let him in. Then he killed these young men.”
There was more they aren’t showing. They cut to that reporter fast as hell.
Drone changes the channel. Three portraits of the killed FIS operatives hang on the screen for a long time while an anchorman narrates: “Luis Esconza was a father of three, a fan of football, and a lifelong soldier before serving the FIS. His widow has a message for Home Run-” Drone turns the TV off.
“So fast,” she says.
I need to think. Why is FIS ragging on me so hard, so fast?
They’ve got something to protect, maybe? FIS has a hard line stance on vigilantes, but they always let OPI make an official invitation before turning someone into a villain. They give them a chance. Not that I’d take it, but they’d still have reached out to me. Or tried to. I guess maybe Mr. Gold counts, asking me to turn myself in and register, but I don’t think so.
“I did this an hour ago and they’ve already assembled all this to make me out as a villain,” I mumble. “Why straight to villain? Why so fast and hard line? They even have a persona made up for me.” That means this is a measured, planned response. To what? Somebody beating up Krater? Krater’s taken worse hits than me.
I’m getting too close to something they’re trying to protect? I mean, Mr. Gold said they were staking out that trade off I interrupted, but maybe they were watching for vigilantes? Pandahead has government connections with Port Authority, apparently, so why not FIS, too? Maybe he’s important to them somehow.
Flashfire scowls and points at me. “It’s because you look like a villain. Because you killed those people.”
I shake my head, I don’t need this right now. I’m trying to get a handle on the situation. “I never set out to kill anyone. I didn’t mean to at all. That’s not our problem, right now. Our problem is figuring out why FIS-”
“But you did.” Flashfire turns on me. His shoulders are set against me. “They lost a father and a husband because of you.”
Damn. Train of thought lost. I’ll have to board it again later. “Can we not do this? That was a battle. A super powered one. I didn’t set out to kill anyone, but I had to fight way harder than I’m used to.”
“Then learn to fight that hard, because I don’t want you killing more people,” Flashfire says. “I don’t want you killing in the name of the Underground.”
“I’m not going to promise I’m never going to kill, we get into bad fights, it happens. I’m not the one who escalated that fight to the point that people needed to die, but when it got there I did what I had to do.” I step away from him. “I did what I had to do to save your life.”
“There was another way to save our lives that didn’t involve killing.” Flashfire’s voice is drenched with contempt. Remise, Drone, Epione, Maisa, they watch in shocked silence. Flashfire’s getting real aggressive, stepping closer and closer. He’s not as tall as I am but he’s stockier.
Fine, he wants this fight, I’ll have this fight. “Yeah, and what was it, then? Because the way I saw it, your other way ended with you dead. Do you even know what Krater was going to do to you? He was about to turn your van into a tiny metal ball with all of you still in it. You, Remise, Maisa, Saw Off, Vaquero. All of you. A fucking smoothie inside a metal can.”
Epione gasps and puts her hand half over her mouth. “He was going to kill them?” She looks at Flashfire with new concern.
“And I quote, ‘Oh, I’m gonna.’ Those FIS agents are trained to shoot to kill, center mass. Mr. Gold, Bedevil, all of them. You want to go into that fight thinking there’s another choice?” Maybe if I could figure out my power as well as Megajoule I could fight in a way that didn’t kill anybody. Megajoule never had to, his power was so much better than mine, his control over it so much greater. It makes me feel so stupid. “I’m not going to apologize for saving your life. No matter what they paint me as, I saved you, I saved Maisa, I save people.”
Flashfire shakes his head. “You’re not proving them wrong. You may save people but the more bodies you leave in your wake the more they’ll paint you as a villain. We can do better.”
“Hey, take it easy,” Remise says.
I understand. I understand it makes him feel like he’s keeping his hands clean. That it gives him some sort of moral superiority to the other vigilantes. Yet at the end of the day, we’re warriors. We go in knowing we could die. “I’m not going to promise you something that’s impossible. It makes things too hard, and what happens when there’s no other choice?”
“You always have another choice.” We’re inches from each other now. The room buzzes. Epione reaches a hand out. Flashfire sees her sneaking up behind him. “Don’t.”
“What if Epione was in danger? What if someone was going to kill her?”
Flash hesitates, his lips thin. He looks back at Epione, then back to me. “You always have another choice,” he repeats.
“I didn’t,” I say. “I had to save you.”
Flashfire jabs his finger in my face. “They’ll never trust you like you want them to if you keep killing. Megajoule didn’t kill-”
I’m not shrinking back anymore. I square up, summon my height to tower over him. “Don’t talk to me about Megajoule.”
Flashfire socks me right in my jaw. I’m not ready for it, so I don’t absorb the energy. I fall back onto my butt.
“Jason!” Epione cries, the first time I’ve heard her say Flashfire’s real name in weeks.
Flashfire stands over me, fist curled for another. He hesitates, and then looks at his fist in shock. So I sweep his leg.
Flashfire’s hand starts to smoke and a burst of phosphorous light blinds me. He pins my right shoulder with one hand and grabs my wrist with his other. He bends hard and twists me onto my stomach.
“I’ll talk to you… about Megajoule… all I want,” Flashfire says between gulps of air, driving his knee into my back. “He was a hero. A real one. Maybe the only one.”
“Get off of him!” Maisa screams, shoving Flashfire from me.
I turn over. My brain’s ringing anxiety sirens, my heart’s accompanying on timpani. This is fucked, I’m tired of having to justify myself. I stand up, with Maisa’s help. I put my glasses back on. “I’m not a hero like Megajoule, and I don’t fucking care anymore.”
Flashfire doesn’t reply, he looks to some distant star only he can see. He leans back against the sofa.
“I’m going.” My throat’s so tight my voice cracks.
“Come on, man, I’m sorry.” Flashfire struggles to stand with me. His voice is hoarse, too.
“That’s not a good idea,” Epione says, holding a hand out to me.
I need to clear my head, not get it massaged. “Maybe not, but neither is staying here. I don’t want you stirring my mind up.” I grab my mask and get the hell out of there.
The night air lays on me like a wet blanket. I activate Drone’s scrambler on my watch.
I understand where Flashfire’s coming from. Saw Off asked me if not killing was a half measure. I’m still not sure, but the consequences are pretty bad. Even if it is easier at first, it might play out in ways I don’t expect. I need to be better at that. I need to plan, I can’t just run into something half-cocked anymore. I got lucky with Krater because I figured out how to use more of my power, but that won’t always be the case.
The Heroics Tower, rising out of the bramble of downtown, flashes a giant image of Megajoule. His slogan scrolls beneath him.
Reach. Dream. Strive. Become.
What does that mean?
I take a long walk back to my place. The scenic route. Just to make sure I’m good and clear-headed. I make it back to my apartment and open the door.
“Good evening, Home Run.”
You ever see one of those movies where the spouse or parent is waiting for the delinquent main character in the dark, and they turn on the lamp and you just know they are gonna start shit? There’s an empty plate in his hands I know is destined for my face.
“Hey, Doc. You saw the news, huh? That’s… uh…” I trail off into a nervous chuckle.
Doc looks at the plate, looks at my face, and then sets the plate down, apparently deciding the better of that. He scratches his neck. “What now, then?”
“I lay low for a little. I’ll give Flashfire a couple of days to cool off, I guess.”
“You should just lay low forever,” Doc says. “Now that the whole damn city thinks you’re a villain.”
“I can’t lay low forever.” Too many rats. Too many children being hurt. It’s not enough for me to sit back and watch it happen.
Doc snorts. “You know, you’re just like him, some times.”
The hole inside comes back. The hole that tells me I’m nothing like Megajoule, and can never be like him. The hole that says I’m just a cheap imitation of the real thing. “How?”
Doc turns the TV on. “Stubborn.” He uses his right arm.
A light bulb explodes in my head. There’s not a scratch on his arm, the one he took my wound on. How could he heal that fast? I’ve never given him an injury this bad. He usually heals back fast from the ones I gave him, but they were always so small. “Doc, what happened to your arm?”
He looks at his arm, and back at me. “Gave the injury away.”
“You can do that?”
“Wound transferal. Not just acceptance.”
Good grief, that means he could just take someone’s broken arm and… “Doc, who did you give that injury to?”
“Someone that deserved it.” His gaze glints like steel in the TV light. Don’t question.
I lean on the counter. I’m gonna question. “Are you telling me that you have a whole double life I don’t know about?”
Doc breaks his stare and turns to me, raising an eyebrow. “Kid, where do you think our money comes from?”
“I thought you were some kind of under the table doctor.”
“That’s pretty close,” Doc says. “But all I really do is move shit around. Take a broken arm, a busted leg, a concussion. Move it somewhere else. Someone asking for it.”
“You’re a vigilante.”
“Not like you, no.” Doc shakes his head. “No, I don’t start fights. I just find out who could really use a kick in the ass, and maybe, in a crowded bar, or on the street with dozens of people walking, I give him a little tap.” He pauses. “These thoughts never run through that brain a yours before? Now you gotta question it?”
“You’ve never taken an injury that bad from me before. I guess I’ve never noticed.”
“Well, notice more, for my sake.” He shakes his head.
Alright, you old coot. I retreat to my room and sit down in front of my laptop. I open Megajoule’s folder of videos and click the next one on the list.
The video starts the same way as the others. Megajoule sits behind the same table with the same blue backdrop, wearing the same polo he always wears, looking as tired as he always looks. He’s got a pencil and notepad, and he’s looking over something on the paper.
He starts to tap the pencil. Nervous tic, I guess.
“Tell me, Gabe, have you ever thought about what would happen if you fell into a black hole?”
No, no I have not, Julian.
“A black hole is an object so dense that not even light can escape from its gravity, in case you need a refresher. If you were to see one, you’d think that maybe God poked a pencil in the fabric of the universe, or something.” He taps his pencil a little more. It’s kind of rhythmic, like a beat. I never thought about Megajoule as a musical person, but why wouldn’t he have been? Almost everyone loves music. He was a very smart man. He probably played an instrument or listened to symphonies for fun, or something.
“And if you were to fall into one? Well, not into, but toward one?” He shakes his head. “All the models in the world wouldn’t prepare you for how terrifying that would be.”
Okay, Julian, what the fuck are we talking about here? What are you trying to tell me?
“Someone watching you would see your body hit the event horizon, and from there, your image would red shift into oblivion instead of continuing on. You’d keep falling, though.” The hand holding the notepad is trembling. “The howling dark would come up at you. An infinite abyss stretching further and further out. Light would wrap around the hole, and as you passed the horizon, the universe would actually fall away behind you. It would shrink and shrink into a pinprick, until all around you is the dark.
“It might actually be calm, for a bit. Until you start to feel yourself stretching.” He stops tapping his pencil. “Spaghettification. Your molecules would get ripped apart into one string pulled down one path. One path that you can’t get off, one path taking you into the shadow. Forever. There is no escape from a black hole, Gabe.”
He locks eyes with me. Right at me. He taps his pencil in a weird pattern, and the video ends on an abrupt cut.
“What?” I ask. “That’s… what?”
Why did he make that an entire video? What was he trying to convey? Did he just want to scare me?
Maybe he was telling me something. Something about how he felt. This video, the last one. He was disturbed. OPI tried to make him and Bedevil out as if they were free, as if they flew together in bright skies with not a care in the world. Megajoule died, but it’s clear to me they were grinding him into dust before that. Just like they’re grinding Bedevil into dust. How long until she turns up dead, too?
I shake my head. I don’t want to watch another video right now. I thought it might help clear my head but that made everything worse.
I need a shower. I go into my bathroom and turn the water as hot as it will go and strip. I stare at my reflection in the mirror, examining my body and face until the steam fogs the mirror up. The hole inside me widens until its so big the universe compresses behind me.
A black hole. Maybe he felt it, too.
I sit under the shower for what feels like hours. The water washes away Gabe, Megajoule, Home Run, the Heroic Underground, OPI, FIS. The heat burns me down and reduces me to my base.
I am only a hole. I will swallow everything around me. String them out until they die. Doc gave up everything just to save me from the same fate as Megajoule. Flashfire watched people die because of me. Even Bedevil. I don’t know her, but I know what shattering someone looks like. I thought using Bella Villa was necessary, but was it? Or was it just convenient?
I exit the shower. When I get out, Doc’s gone. Our streaming service wants to know if he’s still there. I turn the TV off.
My phone has ten messages. Eight of these are from Epione:
(1:54 AM) Hey, Gabe, Jason is really sorry he punched you. Can you come back?
(1:57 AM) He’s really upset.
(2:10 AM) He’s pissed off at himself.
(2:11 AM) He’s really sorry.
(2:26 AM) Please, Gabe.
(2:57 AM) Please.
(3:42 AM) He said some stupid stuff, I knwo. but he didnt mean any fo it, hes just upste about the dead peopl. hge knows you saved his life and your the olny raisin hes alive and to be honest i dont knos what id do if he died.
(3:43 AM) so i owe u a ton choclate and tequila.
After that, there’s one from Drone: (3:24 AM) Heads up, Epione is super drunk
Finally, one from ‘Baby <3’: (2:34 AM) Just saw the news Gabe Babe, or should I say Home Run XP nice job.
Ugh. I don’t want to answer these. Just the thought of trying to work things out right now exhausts me. I know I should go back, talk to them, smooth things over. I’m just so tired and pissed off about all this, even seeing my friends’ names irks me. I mean, Saw Off wasn’t so bad. But still.
Naw, right now I just want to drink a beer and watch the stars. Set all this aside and relax. I grab one of Doc’s awful beers from the fridge and step outside to the walkway. I lean on the cement balcony and look down at the street below our apartment.
My train of thought from earlier pulls back into station. FIS showed up right after we tripped the motion sensor. Lickety split, too. That means it’s their sensor, or someone very close to FIS interests. Why would Pandahead be close to FIS?
Maybe he’s part of them. Does Mr. Gold know? He doesn’t seem like he does. He got angry about me pooching up his investigation. Which is another hole in that fledging theory: Mr. Gold is FIS, and was about to perform a sting on one of Pandahead’s suppliers.
Well, if I wanted people to think I was doing something about crime in Houston, wouldn’t I give my lower ranked guys a bone every now and again? Even while I trafficked people myself? FIS could possibly be doing that here. Who knows? I won’t until we get that lead from the 2nd Amendment.
I sip my beer and stare at the city. Pink and yellow neon, gray concrete. The streets are dead, the lamplights flicker, and the air’s heavy with night-heat and a thick glaze of humidity. There’s no better climate for a cold beer, even if that beer is pig shit. I drink it down and look up at the stars.
There is a girl floating above me. She yelps when I spot her.
Bedevil. She followed me.
Oh. Oh, fuck. “What?” The question can barely get lift off.
She’s not in her Inheritors outfit. She’s in street clothes, in joggers and a white t-shirt that’s a little too big. She’s holding a mostly empty bottle of Everclear. She floats down to meet me at eye level, though she’s still hovering beyond the railing.
I can’t speak, and she doesn’t. She just stares at me, wide-eyed. She clutches that bottle of Everclear like it’s a lifesaver.
“You followed me.”
She nods. Her mouth hangs open.
“How did you…?”
“The power. The same. The pole glowing, when you hit Krater.” She struggles with every word. Her voice wavers, she’s drunk. “Like before. I’ve seen you do that before. Then I remembered your voice.” She chokes, and puts a hand to her nose. Her cheeks redden, the tears spill. She looks away from me. “It’s been so long since… since I’ve heard your voice in real life, that I almost forgot.”
I’ve got no fucking clue what to say.
“Where- where have you been? Where have you been all this time?” she asks.
“I- Bedevil, listen to me, I’m not who you think I am. I know you think I’m Megajoule. But I’m n-”
Bedevil drops the bottle of Everclear and grabs my face. She pulls me in with a harsh jerk and mashes her lips against mine.