While sitting in a cushioned booth at a diner and waiting for my friends to call and give me the location of a human trafficking auction, I count out the money in my wallet, feeling the crinkled, stained paper of my five, the crisp ten, and the five water logged one dollar bills. I set them down and sigh, happy I have enough for a good meal, when I catch sight of a news broadcast about Bedevil, the former sidekick of the world’s greatest cape, Megajoule. She is moving here, to Houston.
This bit of news slices through my thoughts and exposes my brain to a chilly dread, because I am a clone of Megajoule; the only living reminder of him on this earth.
There’s no audio but they show a picture of her. In that picture, she’s young and bright; golden hair flowing wildly as she flies, arms outstretched like wings. Then, they cut to an interview with her and the difference strikes me on the skull: she’s in layers of make-up and it’s still not enough to hide the bags under her eyes, the mark on her cheek from a fight, and her natural smile now a fake replica of the real thing. Wouldn’t be hard to convince me they killed the girl and replaced her with a depressed clone.
I chuckle into my coffee. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
A voice draws my attention to the booth next to mine. “Wait, I can’t find the money Mom gave us.”
The voice came from a pair of kids, both thirteen by the looks of things. The boy’s real street-tired, the kind of tired accompanying greasy hair poking underneath hats, smudges on the cheek, and dirt in the fingernails. The girl’s bone thin and she’s got holes in the back of her shirt around the sleeve seams. The boy looks frantic, running his hands over and over through his jacket and his pants. The plates on the table are empty and sparkling clean, the cups bear a small ring of water at the bottom that must have been ice.
The girl squeaks out a single “What?” as trembling overtakes her.
“I don’t know, maybe I dropped it? Maybe it’s in the bathroom!” The boy gets up from his seat and runs to the bathroom. The girl shakes and stares at the porcelain remains of her food.
A minute later, the boy comes back in defeat, shoulders slumped. “It’s not there.”
The girl doesn’t say anything. She just stares with the glazed over eyes of someone who is not here, who is only along for the ride, and who just wants to have some kind of control, and can only regain it by completely dissociating from her surroundings. An experience I am uncomfortably intimate with.
My waitress comes back, checkbook out to take my order. Before I can stop myself, I lean over and whisper, “How much is their tab?” I gesture to the kids.
The waitress looks through her checkbook. “$15.87.”
I grimace and straighten my glasses. Counting out my money was a bad omen. “And how much is a coffee again?”
The waitress looks at the kids and back at me again. She looks at the checkbook, and says, “For you, Gabe, on the house.”
I smile, kissing the sweet hope of banana pancakes goodbye, and pull out my wallet. I hand her the $20. “Keep the change.”
The waitress nods, and heads off to close their tab out. I drain my coffee, and before the waitress returns to the table, I head out. I hope that made their day. They looked down on their luck.
I slip into the alley behind the diner, activate my watch’s CCTV scrambler, and put my mask on, ready to tackle the human trafficking ring with my friends.
VOLUME ONE: CAPES AND MASKS
ARC ONE: IDENTITY
My jacket thermometer beeps to life and my watch displays how much heat I’ve got restrained inside me. 2500 °C, which is just enough that the surface of my skin only registers at about 100°C.
I convert some of that heat into kinetic energy and vault up to the top of the diner, and from there I bound across rooftops until I’ve got a pretty damn good view of downtown.
Say what you will of Houston. Say it is a cesspool of business, oil, and crime. Say that it is a dead end and that the land it sits on is a bog.
But also say that at night, it shines like a galaxy. You can look into the swirling color of blazing projections on the sides of skyscrapers and see something pristine. The skyline pierces the dark of night like radiant spears. When the morning comes, and you’re left with grimy steel, all you have to do is remember the night before when Houston was beautiful.
Each leap pops while my jumps stir up hot gusts of wind. I time my landings so that I absorb the energy of crashing into pavement. I grin and laugh as I spin into another launching blast to the next roof over, alighting for a fraction of a second before I kick off again, kinetically charging my legs. I soar between the gaps in the skyline.
Orange streetlights 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 goggles automatically adjust between regular and night vision so that my sight isn’t hampered at all.
My watch buzzes. Incoming call from Drone. I answer and her voice bounces from the watch speaker to the earpiece connected to my goggles. “Thought you were sitting down for some pancakes.”
“You ever tried busting up thugs on a full stomach?” I’m not about to tell my work wife that I got taken for a sucker by some poor kids.
Drone’s voice is almost always deadpan and tonight’s no exception. “I am not a violent person.”
“I’ve seen the video games you play.” When that doesn’t earn me a laugh, I press on to the matter at hand. “Do you have the location of the auction?”
“Yeah, it’s a warehouse, corner of Denver and Sampson. East Downtown. You’re about three miles out. Flashfire and Remise want to meet you there. There’s an abandoned garage just south of the warehouse.”
“You told on me?” I mock betrayal and put a hand to my forehead. “You betrayed me? At what price?”
Flashfire’s voice joins the call: “You thought you were gonna handle this on your own?” I can hear the smirk on his face, but there’s a frustrated edge behind his words. Not the first time we’ve had this conversation.
And it’s not the first time I’ve brought this up: “Yeah, well, I’m the only one who’s bulletproof. Hang on, coming up on 45.” I dance toward the rendezvous. Highway 45 snakes across my path, separating the Third Ward from East Downtown, slicing through the city with a stream of honking, buzzing traffic. The air sings with night-heat for me to absorb and use as more fuel, and with a huge burst of kinetic energy that sizzles the rooftop, I bound over the highway and touch down in the warehouses on the other side.
I check my thermometer to make sure I’m not too hot – I’ve actually gained a bit of heat here and there with landings and gravity, putting my current temp at 2700 °C. I don’t start to radiate light until I top 10k °C in my core, but I’m still wary. A momentary lapse in control could boil my friends and allies alive. My clothing is insular but that only goes so far.
I dive down to the streets and sprint the rest of the way, putting heat into each step. With very careful footing, I dash at about sixty per hour.
The abandoned garage is a four-story shell that bears the mark of a superpowered battle. I’m guessing not from the Anarchy. They would have torn it down if the marks were that old.
Two shadows lurk just beyond the ambient light streaming in through an open rolling door. My goggles switch to night vision as I shoot across the road to the entrance.
Flashfire and Remise give me a thumbs up as I dash into their impromptu hiding spot. “Ten outta ten, my bulletproof bro,” Flashfire says.
Flashfire is dressed in an extravagant costume with a short crimson cape and a mask that always make me think of Darth Vader. A flare gun and flashbangs hang from his hips, and his swat armor, spray painted red, still isn’t even strapped all the way on.
Remise’s outfit is far more inconspicuous. Designed for urban stealth, her leather jacket and jeans are all gray, and a motorcycle helmet covers her face, with special holes cut around her ears so she can hear, and three smaller holes drilled into the dark visor so she can smell. In a thick Scottish accent, she says, “I can smell the breakfast on you. Did ye bring any for me?”
“No pancakes. I didn’t have enough money,” I say.
“Oh ho ho, you said it was because you didn’t want to eat before a mission,” Drone says over the comms.
“Here, I’ll make you pancakes after this is done, then.” I smile through my mask. “Have you seen Pandahead yet?”
“Fuck off,” Drone says. “You can’t cook for shit.”
Flashfire heads up a nearby stairwell, creaky and damp from exposure to the elements from a hole in the ceiling. He ducks onto the third floor “Hearth, up here. There’s a good landing spot directly across from this level.”
“Hearth?” I ask. “Which one of you came up with that name?”
“Maybe if you’d pick a good mask name, we wouldn’t have to,” Remise says.
The mission before this it was Javelin, and before that it was Titan. None of my friends’ names stick. “What’s wrong with Gabe?”
Flashfire leans over the ledge of the garage, studying the warehouse across the road. “Come on, man, that’s just your name.”
No. My real name is a number. My friends know that I’m a clone of Megajoule, but they don’t know that the name Gabe is just a stop-gap over a cold, impartial number: Thirty-One. I almost offered that up as my mask name but just the thought makes me feel hollow inside my chest. “Well, lots of people are named Gabe. It’s not gonna get me pinched by the feds or capes.”
“Remise, you watch out, let us know when the vans arrive,” Flashfire says, retreating from the ledge. Remise nods and takes up a post sitting against the ledge wall. Flashfire continues on lecturing me. “That’s what separates us from the non-masked gangs and the powered thugs, ya know? Really, I wish you’d pick your own name, though. You can’t let other people pick your name. Jerky?”
I sit down cross-legged across from Flashfire, snorting at his sudden turn in conversation. “Is that another name, or are you offering me jerky?”
“Both,” Flashfire says, producing a package from his belt.
“Did ya see that Bedevil moved to Houston?” Remise tilts her helmet toward me. “Do ye think that’ll be a problem?”
I wave my hand. “She lives in a fancy tower and fights super villains and probably travels across the world for missions. She’s not gonna come down to the trenches and fight gangs. What cape does that?”
“Not one I’ve seen,” Flashfire says. “It’s probably fine. I mean, even if she did come down here, you look way younger. Your beard, too. I don’t think he ever wore a beard.”
I pull up my mask and rip open the packaging with my teeth. The tangy-sour spray of preservatives shoots up into my nose. I hack and drop the jerky to the dirty garage floor.
“God, that is offensively disgustin’,” Remise says. “Where the fuck did ye buy that, Flash?”
“Walmart, it’s just beef jerky. Five second rule,” Flashfire says.
“Ah, wait, wait,” Remise says. “Vans incoming.”
I forget the beef jerky and crawl over to the ledge with Remise. Flashfire joins us and we poke our heads up over the wall to get a peek of the auction caravan.
Three box trucks roll up to the warehouse gates, which open automatically to let them inside. Flashfire sucks in his breath, the traffic from 45 fades out into the background, and I watch the box vans wheel around each other in a circle. Men stream out of the vehicles, dressed in black armor and helmets, and carrying assault rifles.
“Yeah, that’s Pandahead’s crew,” Flashfire says.
“This is really him, then?” I ask. “Where is he?”
“Ah… there!” Remise says, pointing her finger over the ledge. I follow the traced line in the air to where she’s pointing and see a man, shorter than the armed guards around him, strutting around with his hands buried in his pockets. He wears a full motorcycle helmet like Remise does, but his is painted black and white to resemble his namesake. His leather jacket swallows him alive and his pants billow, suspended by a very tight belt. He’s got to be 120 pounds soaking wet.
“Really?” I ask. “He’s the big hoss of human trafficking?”
“Yes,” Flashfire says. “Iso says he’s been muscling a lot of the other gangs out of town, and the fish and capes won’t do a damn thing to stop him. They say he has some power over fear.”
The men get the trucks open and drag out young girls of all ethnicities out of the dark interiors. The girls are battered, bound around the mouth with cloth, and the men carry them like sacks of potatoes.
“Jesus H. Christ,” Remise breathes. “I can smell the blood from here. He’s been beatin’ ‘em hard.”
Flashfire growls under his helmet. “We’ll get him tonight. If the feds and the capes won’t, we will. He’s only got half a dozen men.”
A man in a simple tactical vest and camouflage pants exits the back of a truck, and his metallic skin glints under the street lamps. “Who is that?” I ask.
“Aspect,” Remise says. “I’ve heard of him. I think you should take him.”
“I got it.” I’m the only one of the Heroic Underground with anything resembling super strength. “The usual?”
“Can do. I’m on tank duty, then.” I throw them a thumbs up.
“Oh, hang on,” Remise says. “We got company. The feds.”
Flashfire and I peer above the ledge again. Sure enough, an unmarked van rolls down the perpendicular road to the one we’re on and stops by one of the other warehouses. Flashfire whistles. “Holy shit, they’re actually moving in.”
“Or maybe they’re just monitoring the buyers,” I say. “They do that, right?”
“Yeah. Keep track of the buyers, and whatnot.” Remise shakes her head. “It does make it easier if we manage to grab Panda. We just drop him in front of their van. They’d have to do something then, right?”
“Yeah, like arrest us for being masks.” Flashfire groans. “I dunno. Should we just wait?”
One of the girls puts up a real fight, kicking and clawing as Pandahead’s men drag her from the back of a van. A guard butts her across the head with his rifle and she goes limp. Her resistance inspires another girl to make a dash for it, and another. They sprint toward the gate, still open, and the guards aim to kill.
My body responds without my permission. There is a lag between my decision to jump and the action, only in that the decision comes afterward this time. I jump the ledge and rocket across the street, leaving an explosion of hot wind in my place. I crash like a meteor into the warehouse lot between the fleeing girls and the guards, and rise into a crucible of gunfire.