Bullets shred through my jacket, impact against my skin as I absorb their kinetic energy, and fall harmlessly to the ground. I endure the guards’ spray-and-pray for a second until they realize that I’m not going down and once they do, I charge with explosive power in my heels. The cement hisses and glows as I rush into their circle and become a whirlwind of heat and limbs.
Control. I must control it. If I don’t, my punches and kicks will rip through flesh like tissue paper, they will smash through bone, they will end lives. I dance between the guards, pummeling them with lightly strengthened attacks, enough that I break ribs. I restrain the heat I gain from their feeble boxing and gunfire. I restrain the heat deep inside me. If I let that energy out, I’d kill them and the girls I’m trying to rescue.
I walk a tightrope Megajoule never taught me how to walk. Energy coiled like a viper around my core, muscles and power straining. Ironically, this is much harder than just cutting loose and hitting as hard as I can.
The guy in riot gear ushers Pandahead into one of the vans while the guards I haven’t taken down yet grab some of the girls and pull them in. My attention is split between the two groups for a second too long. Pandahead turns his helmet my way and reaches for something at the side of his belt — a gun? No… a thermos. He reaches for the top and I get the feeling that I’m tipping forward over the edge of a cliff.
Riot gear grabs his hand and they rush into the van, the thermos unopened.
Aspect joins the brawl between me and the guards. “Fucking maskhole!” He jeers and swings his wrecking ball arms at me. There’s much more pain behind his attacks, more energy to draw on, but I can’t release it all without hurting the people around me. I feed bits of heat into the air with my power, trying not to be overwhelmed.
The first wave of burn out hits me in tandem with a haymaker from Aspect’s fist. A problem unique to my power: all that tightrope balancing and careful management of my energy strains me, like lifting weights that are too heavy at the gym. I’m gassed for half a second and that’s enough for Aspect to knock the wind right out of me.
I roll with it. I catch a second to breath and launch into a kinetic flurry, peppering Aspect with blows. Restrain the energy or I kill the girls, the guards, everyone nearby—
—one of the guards nabs a girl close to me, beating her around the head. She fights hard. I jump and spin a kick—
—Aspect grabs the collar of my jacket. We tumble together, propelled into a spin by my kinetic launch—
—I shove the gun out of the girl’s face and the muzzle flashes, he was really going to kill her—
—Aspect knees me across the face while I’m gassed. I bite down on my tongue and spit blood out, respond with an elementally charged fist at his chest—
—the guard sprawls as the girl jumps onto him, clawing at his face underneath his armored mask. She throws balls of light from her hands into his face, the colors dazzling and strobing. A welterweight power—
—Aspect drives me away from her but I pull him off his feet by robbing his kinetic energy and infusing my own arms with it, and I throw him into one of the fences—
The girl dashes into the warehouse through one of the doors while the guard that fought her grabs me from behind. I catch a glimpse of Aspect chasing her, metal legs cracking the ground beneath him with each furious step. I see the murder in his steel eyes.
I flip forward and tip the guard over my hip, slamming him onto his back with a burst of kinetic power. I chase Aspect and the girl into the warehouse, unsure of the rest of the battlefield. I sprint after them using my power but I’m not pushing 60 mph anymore.
The warehouse is a dragon’s cavern emptied of the beast and his horde, a huge, hollow space where the girl’s sobbing echoes off the walls, mixing with Aspect’s grunts and heavy footfalls. The soundscape blends into a nightmarish backing track as I bound after Aspect.
I dive into his back feet first and unleash a large portion of the energy inside, confident I won’t kill the girl with the burst of heat from where we’re fighting. Light and roiling heat hiss across the soles of my boots and into Aspect’s back, and the metal thug shoots across the room like a bullet. He catches himself by slamming his hand into the pavement and swings back around. He charges me in rage, screaming and howling across the dark.
I move the heat from my core into my hands which sets them alight like tungsten filaments in a lightbulb. With shining fists I beat Aspect down. Each strike brings me closer to gassing out and still he doesn’t stay down. He gets back up, he gets back up, he gets back up. Man of steel, indeed.
Shit, shit, shit. I reel back for one more blazing strike. I summon all of the energy I have and release it with my cross along his jaw, praying that the explosive burst won’t kill the girl. The blast resounds in the warehouse, shaking the walls and windows, rattling the rafters, prying dust from the empty shelves and windowsills.
Aspect punctures through the warehouse wall and doesn’t come back.
I fall to my knees, all the energy I held spent. I try to suck some up but my power doesn’t respond. Too heavy, too fast, and now I’m worn out until I can get some rest.
The girl. I call out to her: “Hey? Are you here?” My night vision reveals the shadows to me and I find her crouched behind a rusted shelving unit, clinging to the frame with trembling hands. She slinks behind it when I catch sight of her. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m here to help.”
The girl holds out her hand. “I don’t know you.” Her accent sounds roughly Middle-Eastern, but I couldn’t give an exact country.
If she shoots those balls of light again and makes a run for it, I’ll probably lose her, and she’ll be on the streets of Houston alone. A trafficked girl with nowhere to turn on the streets by herself. That’ll end well. I need her to trust me.
“Don’t you recognize my voice?” I ask.
The girl’s hand wavers and falls to her side. “I don’t.”
I do have one surefire way to make her trust me. I share a face with the greatest superhero in the world. I pull off my mask and hold my hands out like I’m cornering a wild dog, and approach with cautious, slow steps. “How about now? Putting the pieces together?”
I can’t make out her face in the dark and without my glasses. But judging by her silence, she’s still not figured it out, yet.
“I really gotta spell it out for you, huh?” I stand up straight and put my hands to my hips, and pray that she’s heard of Megajoule. My entire posture changes, I clear my throat and recite his slogan: “Reach, dream, strive, become!”
The girl tilts her head, and says, “Mega…joule?”
I grin and point my finger at her, even as I feel my soul dying inside from the lie. Or is it the truth? “You’ve got it.”
“He… you… you died, didn’t you?” the girl asks.
“I’ve been undercover,” I lie. That’s easier than the truth, that I’m the only clone left from an insane program that wanted more of him. I step closer and the girl does not retreat. “What’s your name?”
“Maisa.” She steps out from the shelves. “Why are you here? What are you doing?”
“Fighting monsters.” I put my mask back on and the night vision goggles bring the world back into crisp 20/20 in a green flash. “Same as always. Now, listen, some agents are coming, and when they get here, you need to go with them, okay?”
“What do I tell them about you?” Maisa asks.
“Just tell them I was a man in a mask-”
“Freeze! FIS!” Flashlights pierce the dark warehouse as a handful of federal agents rush inside. The lights fall on me and Maisa standing next to each other, and the agents aim guns. The lead man, in a tactical vest of his own that has FIS emblazoned on the chest, lifts his hand up and drops his revolver to his side. The gun glints gold from the flashlight beams. “Sir, you need to take off that mask.”
I hold my hands up. Where the hell are Remise and Flashfire? “Did you rescue the other girls?”
“The mask, sir,” the man says.
“The other girls.”
“They’re safe,” he says. “Take off your mask and surrender yourself. You’ll be treated lightly if you comply.”
Somehow, I highly doubt that. Advantages: they won’t open fire with Maisa right next to me. They can’t risk hitting a bystander. The shelving and the dark provide good cover, and I have back up coming – if they haven’t already caught Flash and Remise – which means I should be able to stall for time. Disadvantages: they are all armed and armored, and they’ve caught me while I’m gassed. If I got a breather I could take them on but I’m not sure if I could avoid killing them.
Drone’s voice buzzes into my ear. “Ran some facial recognition on them. Three career agents and the lead guy is an ex-cape named Mr. Gold.
I reach up to my mask, hoping that the movement buys me some time. “You were a cape once, weren’t you? I think I recognize you… Mr. Gold?”
“Agent Javier Aguellar. We can talk former careers in the van,” Mr. Gold says. He levels his gun. “Keep sliding that mask off.”
I dive for one of the shelves, away from Maisa. One of the trigger-happy agents pops a shot off- bullet impacts arm- Mr. Gold shouts, “You’ll hit the girl-” Maisa throws balls of light at the agents, a snap decision that might save my life-
Mr. Gold fires at me four times and warmth plumes above my hip. Blood drips from my jacket. I roll with a small burst of energy and shove metal shelving at the fish, and they scatter, but one of them takes another shot. I try to absorb the energy but the bullet bites into my shoulder and out the other side, giving me nothing but agony.
I reach for a piece of metal on the floor – out of blind luck, it’s a baseball bat. I heft the bat and charge through the darkness at Mr. Gold.
Flashfire speaks over the comms: “Close your eyes.”
I squeeze ‘em shut. Bright light sears my eyelids, so bright that I’m not sure it was enough to keep me from being dazed. Remise howls with laughter as she brawls her way through the agents. Flashfire hooks his hands in my armpit to help me to my feet, setting a throbbing wave of pain from where I was shot.
“Bulletproof, huh?” Flashfire grins.
“Most of the time,” I manage. “Which is more than you.”
“Yeah, yeah, save the pissing contest.” He throws my arm around his shoulder. Behind us, Remise opens up a can of whoop ass on the blinded agents. “Come on, I brought the van.”
I stumble with his support out the back end of the warehouse, through the hole I put Aspect through. The metal thug is nowhere to be seen. Must’ve booked it after the agents showed up. Smart.
I curse a bit. I pushed myself way too hard, too fast, and now we’ve got nothing to show for it. Pandahead scattered, his men scattered, and we don’t even know who was coming to the auction tonight.
Flashfire notices me grinding my teeth. “It’s cool. We can get more leads.” He presses a cloth against my shoulder, the worst of the bullet wounds.
“Yeah,” I say.
We sneak back to the garage. Remise follows after a bit. “They’ll get up in a bit. I already called for backup from one of their comms. Should be here any second.”
“Okay, then those girls are safe,” Flashfire grabs the med kit from the van, pulls the clotting gel tube and fills my bullet wounds. My forearm and my shoulder have exit wounds, but my hip doesn’t. We can dig the bullet out later, when we’re safe.
Remise nods. “I never lost track of them. Good thinking, Gabe, leapin’ in like that. You probably saved those two runners.”
I sigh. The cold gel soothes my pain. “That’s good.” At least I did that. This could’ve gotten way worse.
Remise turns her head toward the stairs. “Speaking of, we have a guest.”
Flashfire and I whirl around, and Flashfire holds his hand out toward the stairwell. His palm begins to smoke, the telltale sign of his power. There’s no incoming threat, no thugs or agents, or hell, even a cape. Just a young, timid Maisa staring at us from the shadows. She emerges gingerly, glances around for danger or a trap, and approaches our van.
I free myself from Flashfire and meet her halfway from our van. “You should have gone with the fish.”
“They didn’t save me. You three did.” She can’t be older than fourteen, and I’d guess she’s UWC naturalized, because her English is very good. Maybe her family fled the Syrian Supers war. Maisa points her finger at me. “You saved me. The girls that ran for the gates would be dead if not for you, Megajoule.”
“She saw your face?” Flashfire asks.
“Yeah.” I wince. I don’t feel good about lying to a kid.
“Are you going after him again?” Maisa asks. Her eyes are steel black, they are daggers, they hide murder.
“We lost our lead,” I say. “I lost our lead.”
Maisa’s expression darkens. Her shoulders shake, her fists clench. “I know who he was going to meet tonight. I want to help you destroy him.”