Dark thunderheads prowl at the edge of Houston, growling with anticipation for the night ahead. Flashes of lightning pierce the thick black clouds, revealing for an instant their sheer size as they slowly crawl toward the Second Ward.
Our pace is much faster as we jog along the side of a railroad that runs through the heart of the ward. A thorny bramble of suburban houses entangled with swanky apartment buildings and old, rusted warehouses sits on the left, still murmuring with the midnighters and the partiers.
We haven’t hit the blanket of OPI drones just yet, and our Drone is still thinking of a way to mask us from that. Hopefully it won’t matter.
At the edge of Harrisburg, where cars zoomed across the bridge over the tracks, Mil-dot, Iso, and Drone split off to perch on the roof of a nearby apartment complex. A moment later, Drone’s voice comes over the comms. “Don’t move in yet. They’ve got drones in the air beyond Harrisburg, and my watches can’t jam those. I’d wait until the fighting starts.”
“That’s not good,” I say. “What if Maisa gets hurt before we can get there?”
“If they pick us up, they’ll go for us, not Pandahead,” Drone says.
“Let me scout ahead,” Drone says. “I’ll keep you updated.”
My watch goes quiet. I check my phone for the time. Around 11 PM. I also have a text.
A screen shot of a map, with a red pin on it. I zoom in. Harrisburg and Milby, not even a mile away from here. She’s close by.
“Got a girlfriend?” Asperity asks.
“Of course he does, he’s Home Run!” Carapace says.
Dustdevil snaps her finger. “Damn it. Five bucks.”
Carapace laughs. “We agree on ten!”
“I never said I have a girlfriend,” I say, putting my phone back in my jacket pocket. I brush the white sleeves off. Since my other jacket got ripped up, I had to use Doc’s makeshift backup, the one he first made for me. It’s kind of like a letterman jacket.
“Oh, shit!” Dustdevil says. “Ten bucks it is, bitch!”
Carapace grumbles. “How do you not have a girlfriend?”
“Do you want a girlfriend?” Dustdevil asks. She cackles behind her mask.
“Do you want a boyfriend?” Asperity asks.
My watch lights up, and Drone says, “Okay, they’re moving. They just stopped traffic along the main roads. Police blockades at every major intersection. This is definitely it.”
Mil-dot joins in: “I’ve got eyes on several teams. Three groups moving around. They’re sweeping for him.”
“Mil, can you see Maisa anywhere?” I ask.
“I need to know what building. Right now it’s like looking for a needle in a bunch of other glowing needles. I won’t know until I can focus in on an area.”
I huff and cross my arms. Maisa’s out there somewhere, and every passing second is another second with Tim Prince. I can’t stand it.
Epione’s mask displays the neon pink smiley emoji at me. “It’ll be okay, Gabe.”
Right, she can tell if I’m getting worked up. “Thanks.”
“Man, got the feeling of Parlor all over again,” Lugs says.
“Ye ain’t kiddin’,” Remise says. “I’m fuckin’ pumped fer this.”
“I’m geeking out,” Carapace says, waving her hands in her face. “Our biggest bag so far was a guy using his power to short circuit ATM machines. Nothing like Pandahead or Krater.”
“Speaking of Krater,” Mil-dot says. “I see him and Hasuji… buying… tacos?”
“Blending in,” Iso says. “Trying to, anyway. See how they’re just hanging out, in full costume? At a gas station? They’ve got orders to stand by.”
Feels weird not being able to see any of this. Makes me feel like I’m about to step into something I’m not sure about.
Long minutes pass while the city continues on around us. The traffic on the bridge ahead trickles down from dozens of cars at a time to one car every minute, and at last to no traffic at all. The steady background noise of cars fades out, and a painful quiet falls over the Second Ward.
Asperity hops around, sliding on his feet as he changes his friction to nil. Dustdevil shoots gusts from her hand to spin him like a ballerina, while Carapace laughs on the sideline. They belong in a high school cafeteria, not a railroad right before a battle.
Remise, Epione, and Lugs, on the other hand, chat quietly.
“Hang on,” Mil-dot says. “They’re converging on a building, a warehouse. All of the hero teams, and a small squadron of police cars. The Hawks are landing on the roof.”
My heart starts pounding. “Where?”
“North side of Navigation, about a half a mile at 10 AM from you.”
I can barely stand this wait. Thunder rumbles off in the distance, closer this time.
“Don’t move yet,” Iso says. “Wait until they’re good and distracted.”
Remise growls. “Can’t wait much longer.” Glad to know I’m not the only one chomping at the bit. Still, Iso’s right. We need to go at the exact moment.
Mil-dot sounds excited as she tells us: “There’s a bunch of people inside, adults, adults… girl. Young.”
“Maisa,” I whisper. She’s within my reach.
I hear gunfire in the distance.
“What was that? Has it started?” I ask.
“Someone just started taking potshots at police patrolling the Ward,” Mil-dot says. “Shit! They’re teleporting!”
“Warspeed,” I say.
“Someone just flew out of the warehouse windows and started a fight with the Hawks on the roof,” Mil-dot says.
“It’s started. We’ve got to move.”
I summon the energy I’ve stored inside me and use it to enhance my movement. I’ve gotten faster this week, more in tune with my power. I exult in that, running as fast as I can without leaving the group totally behind, but I still end up ahead of them as I rush down the railroad, under the bridge.
“Gabe, wait up!” Remise calls.
I should stop, but Maisa needs me. The others will catch up, and I can take care of anything I run into myself. Nothing’s going to stand in my way.
I come out from under the bridge, and push up out of the railroad, to the streets of the Second Ward. I land right in front of a woman, who’s just as surprised to see me as I am her. I didn’t think any pedestrians would be out this late, especially with gunfire in the area.
She blinks. “You’re…”
I glance back at the others, still beyond the bridge. Crap, I walked into this one.
“Gabe!” Mil-dot shouts. “The woman!”
The woman lunges forward within my arm’s reach before I can get my guard up. I rock back on my heels and lose balance.
“Home Run,” she says. “What luck.”
The woman’s arm swells up as she jabs across my shoulder. The fist is a wrecking bell of calluses and bone, and coiled with strength I didn’t anticipate, and so I take the full damage of the blow. The woman follows up by snaking this arm around my neck at an impossible angle, like she’s got no bones in the arm itself. Her skin tone darkens, her face morphs into an androgynous one, and all the hair on their head sheds off their scalp, balding them in a second.
I drive my knee up into their chest, and kick off my foot with the other, trying to blast them with kinetic energy. I completely miscalculate my footing, and instead of blasting Sledge off of me, we both launch into the air with a rush of heat and light from the energy transfer.
“Gabe!” Remise shouts over the comm.
“Keep going!” I shout back.
Sledge digs nails into my jacket, shredding through the white sleeve. I absorb what I can, but their nails still slice open the skin, and blood stains my jacket arm.
We smash into a roof, and I roll free of Sledge’s grasp, right off the edge of the building. I shout as I tumble down to the next rooftop, a smaller warehouse tucked right underneath the apartment we landed on.
I groan and get to my feet. My arm burns where Sledge cut me.
“You’re good,” Sledge says, stepping to the edge of the roof.
I blast upwards with a heated burst of energy, hitting the wall just beneath the ledge. Sledge’s leg stretches to almost twice it’s normal length and kicks at me. I grab the elastic leg, slam it into the wall, and suck all the heat I can. The skin sizzles and blackens from frostbite, and the brick frosts over as they freeze together. I jump the rest of the way up, slamming them in the back with a Captain Kirk double fist.
Sledge tips over and eats brick, but instead of falling they dangle by their frozen leg. They won’t be going anywhere.
“You’re very good,” Sledge says. “Temperature control. Interesting.”
“Fuck off and die,” I say.
“No,” Sledge fires back. “Super strength, resistance, temperature control, limited flight, speed. Do I have that right?”
“Gabe, are ye okay?” Remise says.
“Yeah,” I say over the comm, I guess answering both questions without meaning to. “I’m on my way.”
Sledge falls down to the roof below, landing on their feet like a cat. The blackened leg returns to a normal color. Healing.
They lock their eyes on me. “Walk away, Home Run, before your friends get hurt again.”
“Fuck you. You killed four people for no reason.”
“Pyre did that. He gave up valuable information. Hurt my mission.”
“Your mission to help a slaver? A sex trafficker?”
“To defend the UWC,” Sledge says.
“If the UWC needs slavers to defend it, maybe the UWC isn’t worth defending.”
“That’s childish. Your phone. The plastic of that watch. Your jacket, your mask. Do you know where they were made?”
I don’t say anything.
“Some slave wage factory, in India, in Eastern Europe, even in South America. Our world is built off the backs of others.” Sledge paces back and forth beneath me. “We’ve built the best world we can with what we’ve got. As few people are getting hurt as possible.”
“You’re fucked in the head,” I say.
“Perfect is the enemy of the good, Home Run. You will never be satisfied. You will look at your fellow and say, ‘You are not good enough,’ and try to change them. You can’t change people.” Sledge’s legs swell as their arms and torso shrink. They shift their muscles around their body. “No matter how hard you try. You’ll just hurt everyone.”
Sledge vaults up to the roof. Mid-air, their legs shrink until they’ve got shriveled bird legs, and their arms pump up to the size of tree trunks. Sledge whips their hand at me, and black, gnarled claws growing from their fingernails just graze off my jacket.
I infuse myself with kinetic energy, backing up out of Sledge’s assault, but there’s not a lot of roof to work with.
Sledge snares my left forearm with a clawed hand, trying to slice me open. I steal the energy of the claws digging into my arm, but they still shred the skin. Blood spills out of my jacket.
Their other arm is tiny. Weak. I grab it and pull Sledge off me, hoping they’ll shift their muscles to that arm so I can kick their leg out.
Sledge is smarter than that. They engorge their leg opposite me and knee my chest. I roll across the roof. I absorb all the energy I can.
I crash into a pile of plastic lawn furniture, and when I grab the chairs to support myself, my hands melt through the plastic. I’m glowing again. I try to restrain the heat but I was holding a lot before we even started fighting, and I haven’t gotten the chance to use much.
With a burst of energy, I shoot up to my feet, just in time to meet Sledge’s fist with my hand. I take all of the energy I can and jab at his chest. I’ve got more tools in my box, now, so I stimulate the air molecules from my fist into his chest, and splurge on the energy. Sledge’s sternum caves in, bones splinter, flesh squelches, and the skin turns purple. I pour heat into Sledge’s fist from my other hand, and their arm pops and sizzles like I’m cooking Sledge bacon.
Sledge falls back, spewing blood from their mouth. They look down at their ruined chest, and smile.
Gunfire to the north, a lot of it. Mil-dot excitedly talks over the comms, “Gabe, there’s some kind of paramilitary group attacking the police and the warehouse.”
Sledge stands up. Their voice is strained, and blood dribbles out of their mouth with each word. “One last chance, Home Run. Walk away.”
“I’m not leaving without the girl,” I say, putting my fists up.
Sledge’s chest inflates, I can see their ribs realign under skin that’s rapidly healing the purple-black bruises. Within seconds, their torso is in working condition and they don’t bleed from the mouth anymore. “If it were up to me, I’d give her to you. I don’t care about her. But, even if it were up to me, she would not placate you. You’re a perfectionist. You’ll only settle for the ideal outcome.” Sledge grimaces, their arm is still charred. The arm heals, but slower than the chest wound.
While they’re distracted with healing themselves, I pivot toward the warehouse, turning into a kinetic dash. “I’m on my way,” I say over the comms.
“No you’re not.”
An elastic arm wraps around my leg, sending me face first into the roof.
I flip around to face my enemy.
Sledge is wearing Maisa’s form.
I can’t even think. All I am is rage.
Sledge-Maisa whips through the air toward me, pulling themselves by their elastic limb, and digs a black claw into my shoulder, deeper than they’ve gotten before, even while I’m trying to absorb the force of their blow. I snarl and kick with my free leg, while transferring as much heat as I can into their rubber arm. The arm hisses and retracts.
Sledge flies up into the air with my kick, coiling the arm back to normal length. They somersault with a kick, landing on all fours only a few feet away. They must’ve dodged out of the full strength of my kick, I should have launched them a lot farther than that.
I shoot more of my wind blasts. If I cave their chest in or ruin a limb, they’ll be stuck healing, and they aren’t as fast as I am.
Sledge-Maisa morphs out of each of my blasts by opening holes in their body and retracting their head and limbs into their chest, like they’re made of play dough. One of my wind blasts connects, and their skin ripples, opens, and passes the shock through them.
I launch backwards with energy, and hit my head on the railing at the edge of the roof. Metal poles.
Time to show Sledge why they call me Home Run. I freeze the metal so much it crumbles to dust and rip a length of railing free. I’ve got a nice little baseball bat here.
Sledge grabs my neck.
I twist, and step to my feet with a quick kinetic burst, and slam the makeshift bat into their chin. Sledge-Maisa’s head cracks back, their neck rips open in a bloody spray. They’ll recover in seconds.
I don’t give them the time. I have so much energy I haven’t used yet, more than I used on Krater. As Sledge puts their head back in place, I wind back, and smash their ass with a Heatwave Home Run. The makeshift bat glows brighter than the sun, and Sledge catapults into the air, still trying to reattach their head.
They fly several blocks, and crash through the roof of an elementary school with a loud boom.
“What was that?” Remise asks.
“Sledge,” I say. They’ll probably get up again, but I’m getting the hell out of here. “What’s the situation?”
“We’re still headed over!” Remise says.
“OPI hasn’t breached the warehouse yet, but that Warspeed girl is jumping around a lot, taking shots at them,” Mil-dot says. “She split herself into two clones, like Pyre told us, so there’s two of them jumping around. The Thunderclap guy has been flying around, fighting with Snow Owl and Gyrfalcon. Those paramilitary guys are moving around.”
“Sledge seemed concerned about them. Maybe that’s the Sanctified Remnant Pyre told us about,” I say. “I didn’t expect them to get involved in this so soon.”
“I can’t get into the chatter frequency for OPI or for Panda,” Drone says, “So I don’t know what anyone’s thinking.”
I jump off the roof and head down the street. The gunfire is directly north of me, so I make for that direction, using the heat I have left to leap and bound toward the warehouse.
“Meet me at Navigation,” I say on the comms. “I’ll clear a path to the warehouse, keep the attention on me, and you guys get Maisa out.”
“Will do,” Remise says.
Gunfire snaps my attention ahead of me. There’s a police blockade, a dozen officers carrying handguns while crouched behind their squad cars, and a lone figure holding a kid hostage while aiming a rifle at the police.
I gasp. The helmet. Pandahead.