Flashfire is the Heroic Underground’s leader, but Epione, our team medic and Flashfire’s girlfriend in that order, is the money. That’s never more apparent than when his raggedy van grumbles up to the driveway of Epione’s house, which is a McMansion on MacGregor near the University of Houston. The McMansion stands in a row of others like it, but only Epione’s lawn is neat and well cared for, and only her house is silent while all the others emit loud EDM music and the sounds of high octane frat parties.
I’ve always been a little confused as to how Flashfire and Epione ended up together. She greets us at the back door with a large, demure smile, prim and proper. She’s drop-dead, too, and I mean that. She could have been a model if she wasn’t a med student. Bright green eyes, brown, voluminous hair, and perfectly sculpted cheeks. Her voice is summer sweet when she speaks: “Hello.” She glances at Maisa and pauses. There’s a second of hesitation before her expression realigns into one of surprise. “Who’s this?”
Flashfire takes off his helmet, revealing his bushy hair matted down by his hat. He’s also strikingly handsome. Could have been a model, too. “This is Maisa. We rescued her from Pandahead.”
“She’s gonna help us nail him,” I say.
Epione stares at Maisa for a second longer before the demure smile returns. “Neat.”
“Also, Gabe has a bullet in his hip,” Flashfire says. “Could you dig that out?”
Epione looks at me. She frowns. “Double neat.”
Maisa stares at Epione’s kitchen like she’s climbed up a beanstalk to get here and now watches giants at work. Glittering marble counter-tops sprawl and golden knobs — real gold — adorn the cabinets and drawers. The kitchen island has a stove top and plenty of room for chopping vegetables, but the marble is stained red from past surgeries, and that’s where Epione sits me. “Off with your jacket and shirt.”
My shirt and leather jacket stick to my skin, slick with blood, but thanks to the clotting gel Flashfire put in my wounds, I don’t bleed more. I strip out of the bloodied clothes and replace my mask with my glasses.
Epione tsks me when she sees the wounds are filled. “You know I’m going to have to remove the gel. It’s gonna hurt.”
“Yeah.” I grit my teeth. “Let’s get on with it, chief.”
Remise takes off her helmet, too. She’s Scottish as Scottish can be, from her straw red hair to her freckled face like God got generous with the spice shaker. Her grins are wide, friendly, with an undertone of stark raving mad. “Right. Let’s hear it, kid. What ye got for us?”
I hold my hand out. The poor kid’s been traumatized, and despite her earlier resolve to bring Pandahead down, I can’t imagine she’s ready to hit the pavement already. “Give her a sec.”
Maisa whirls around to Remise. “One of the guys was talking that Pandahead was going to auction us off to a couple of gangs. He said they had buyers from the Storm Knights, the 2nd Amendment, Shortfin, El Poder, and Dresden.” The fervent look is back and she whispers the names again after she says them, the automatic response of someone who repeated a list over and over again until it was burned into their memory.
Well, what the fuck do I know? Epione pulls her med kit from the storage room behind her fridge and starts preparing a lot of sharp, steel implements that I really shouldn’t be afraid of anymore. I grimace as she brings them over. To keep my mind off it, I say, “One of those is a cape, right?”
“Yeah, Shortfin,” Remise says. “Famous here for a while, before Krater and the Houston Heroes. He retired right around the time I moved here, actually. The rest are gangs I’ve heard of, usual Houston fare.”
“Can’t imagine what 2nd Amendment wanted with them, though.”
Epione pauses and furrows her brow at the mention of the 2nd Amendment.
“I don’t think they were there to buy slaves. Saw Off hates that shit as much as we do,” Remise says. “Probably they were gonna light the place up.”
I chuckle. I’ve never met them but everyone knows about the 2nd Amendment’s lack of trigger discipline. “Yeah, that sounds like them.”
Epione shakes her head at the bullet hole in my hip. “Burn out again?”
“I went a little hard on them-” I start, but as I talk, Epione digs a scraper through the clotting gel in my hip, pulling it out in one clean blow that sends shockwaves along my nervous system. “….ffffffuuuuuuccckkkkk.”
“Big baby,” Remise says, grinning.
“How did those bullets hurt you, Megajoule?” Maisa asks. “And how did you end up here?”
Ah, shit. Time to pay the piper. “Listen, Maisa? I’ve… thanks for telling us which gangs were going to be there. I’ve got to be honest with you about something and I totally get it if it upsets you.”
Maisa scrunches her face up and I’m not quite sure what she’s thinking. After a moment, she nods.
“I lied. I’m not Megajoule.”
“Why did you lie?” Maisa’s expression darkens.
“To get you to trust me. I’m sorry. I didn’t know if that metal guy would come back and hurt you, so I’d hoped you’d follow me and I could get you somewhere safe until I was sure he was dealt with.”
Epione digs around more in my wound and changes out her scraper for a scalpel. “I’m going to soothe you, now. Otherwise, this is going to hurt.” She places her hand on my shoulder and the deep ache in my hip, shoulder, and arm fades away to a pleasant warmth.
Maisa’s brow furrows, and she kneads her pants with her hands, very lost in thought. After a moment, she says, “Explain. Why do you look like him?”
Thank God, I figured she’d want to leave right away. I heave a sigh. “Very few people know what I’m about to tell you. I’m not Megajoule: I’m his clone. Do you understand what I mean?”
Maisa shakes her head.
“It means they made me to be like him. I wasn’t born. I’m like lab-grown chicken.” I smile a little at my own analogy. I can feel the pressure from Epione’s knife but not the bite.
“That is very strange.”
“You’re telling me, kid,” I say. “Anyway, that’s it. I’m sorry you got mixed up in this.”
Maisa is lost in thought. Her brow wrinkles and tightens more. “Why?”
“Why what?” I ask.
“Why did they make you?”
I rub the back of my neck with my good hand. “Megajoule was really important to them. They made me – and quite a few others- as a back-up. When he died, they asked me to take over his job.” And his name, his marriage, his life. Pretend to be a husband, pretend to be a father. Maisa would never understand that kind of thing.
“Fraud,” Maisa says.
Well, I guess she does.
“Yeah, fraud. Identity theft. I couldn’t do that. It’d be wrong.”
“Blasphemous,” Maisa says.
“Yeah.” I start to recede again, slipping away from my own body. The longer I think about him the more distance there is between me and everything else. The wider the gulf, the more hollow I feel. Every second of him is one less of me. “Yeah. Blasphemous.”
Flashfire returns from the other room with Drone, laptop under one arm and sloppily dressed in pajamas. She’s got little care for her appearance in general, actually. I’m not even sure she owns makeup, unlike Epione who applies it with all the skill of a genius artist. Her curly afro is flattened on one side, an almost permanent case of bed-head.
Drone yawns and shakes her head as she sees me sitting on the counter shirtless and bloody while Epione tears into my hip. Her presence draws me out of the void and plants me back in my body.
I grin at her and flex one of my arms. I’m a fairly muscular guy, I work out a lot, and I keep in shape for mask work, and sometimes it’s nice just to hit a flex when you’ve got it. “Like what you see?”
Epione’s knife suddenly bites hard, making me hiss from the pain. Epione’s face does not betray her but I can just tell she’s stifling a smirk.
Drone cackles. “Yeah, I love it.” She trudges up to the counter and opens her laptop. “Dear husband, you’ve made the news tonight.”
“Oh, really?” It’s not rare for a mask to make the news if they do something noteworthy, like, say, attacking a squad of fish. I haven’t had my fifteen minutes of fame yet, so it’s a little exciting.
“You two are married?” Maisa asks.
Drone grins back at her and shuffles black curls out of her eyes. “Only on the clock.”
Maisa doesn’t look like she understands the concept.
“We’re work spouses.” I laugh. “When I’m wearing my mask, Drone’s practically my wife.”
“Why do you not actually get married?” Maisa asks. “If you get along so well.”
Drone chuckles and nods. The girl doesn’t know about the concept, so she’s just moved onto the next topic. “Where you from?”
“Syria,” Maisa says. “Until recently.”
“You a refugee?” Drone asks, her expression softening. “Do you have family?”
“Yes.” Maisa frowns. “I don’t wish to talk about that.”
“We can get you back to them,” Remise says.
“No. You can’t.” Maisa trembles, her eyes water and her nose reddens, and furious tears wet her cheeks.
The friendly atmosphere of Epione’s kitchen chills from that comment. No one misses the implication, not even Epione. Pandahead took everything from this girl. Drone’s smug smile vanishes, Remise locks eyes with the tiles, and Flashfire makes a sound like someone punched him in the chest.
Maisa wipes her cheeks and changes the subject. “If you are made like him, why are you bleeding?”
“I’m a bit disappointing, huh?” I chuckle. “He could do a lot, but so far I’ve only managed to control thermal and kinetic energy. If I go too hard I risk hurting people with shockwaves and the heat stored in my body, so I hold myself back, and it takes a lot of effort. So much that I gas myself faster than I would if I was just cutting loose.”
Epione pulls the bullet in my hip out in one piece and ends her soothing touch, leaving me with a painful throbbing sensation in my gut. “Strange. It’s gold.”
“Mr. Gold,” I say. “Did you find out what his power is, Drone?”
“Aurekinesis. Gold manipulation.” She returns to the island and opens her laptop up to the internet.
“Clever,” I manage without rolling my eyes. Cape names are always cute.
“More importantly, check out your mug, Home Run.” She leans into the last words hard with a smirk and turns her laptop around so I can see. Front page of Houston news media is a waist up shot of me with a bat in my hand, sprinting out of the darkness. From the angle, I’d guess they got the image from a body camera, probably on Mr. Gold.
“Home Run?” I read the article associated with the picture.
Earlier this evening an unknown group of masks interrupted an investigation by the Federal Investigative Services. The team were on site as part of a sting operation on a human trafficking ring and had hoped to make a bust that was thwarted by the masks.
The article also has a picture of Flashfire, Remise, and worst of all Maisa, who had no mask on at all.
The leader of the group, currently dubbed Home Run by FIS, attacked federal agents when ordered to take off his mask, according to an FIS representative, and was backed up by the other two masks seen here. The group is believed to have abducted the young girl in these photos.
“Ouch.” That’s gonna be bad news. We might have to keep our heads down low.
“They think you’re the leader,” Flashfire says. “That’s cute.”
“Only because I’m taller than you.” I grin at him. “Whatever. There’s so many masks in Houston, we’ll drop off the radar in a week or two.”
“It’s the abduction part I don’t like.” Flashfire shakes his head, and strikes the pose of the Thinker while fumbling his helmet around in his free hand. “I think we need to drop you off at a fish center, kid.”
Maisa scowls and shakes her head. “No. You’re fighting Pandahead, right? You’re the one who will bring him down, right? I want to see it happen myself. I know how these things go. I won’t see justice if you take me to these agents.”
I turn the name Home Run over in my head. Maisa is desperate to see Pandahead brought to justice but I wonder if we’re the ones to do it. Really, I wonder if I’m the one to do it. Megajoule could’ve swooped in there, saved those girls, and apprehended Pandahead in one go. I barely managed to save the girls.
Flashfire, in the meantime, is clearly deep in thought over Maisa’s plea. I don’t blame him for being cautious. He is our leader and he’s got to think about the entire Heroic Underground, not just Maisa’s thing. After a moment, he puts his helmet on the counter, gets down on one knee in front of Maisa, and smiles at her. “Here, let’s talk about it in the morning, then? I’m sure you’re hungry and tired.”
Maisa looks at me, and at Drone, and then back at Flashfire. She nods. “Mostly tired.”
“There’s plenty of soft beds,” Flashfire says. He walks her out of the kitchen.
Epione fills the bullet holes with clotting gel and covers them with bandages for extra support. “There you go!” She smiles her demure smile and stands up.
“Thanks, Ep.” I shuffle off the counter and stand on my own two feet. The clotting gel works its anesthetic magic and fills my stomach with a minty cool sensation. I roll my shoulder and it responds without complaint. In a few days, I’ll have a couple of scars and little else to worry about. “Are we pursuing this stuff?”
“I think we should keep our head down a bit,” Remise says. “But at the very least, I’d love to kick the Storm Knights’ collective teeth in.”
“I’m all for you bashing some neo-Nazis.” Drone closes her laptop.
Flashfire returns in casual dress. He’s got a fresh shirt for me to wear, but it’s one of his, so it ends up that if I move my arms around my midriff shows. Still: “Thanks.” I grab a beer from Epione’s fridge. Flashfire opens the door to the backyard. Remise grabs both of them beers and the three of us head outside, while Epione and Drone dip out to play video games together.
The streets are dead, the lamplights flicker, and the air’s heavy with a thick glaze of humidity. There’s no better climate for a cold beer, even if that beer is pig shit. I turn to Flashfire and Remise. “So. Home Run. What do you think?”
“I don’t like it,” Flashfire says. “That’s a villain’s name.”
“I didn’t even attack them,” I say. “Besides, don’t you want me to have a mask name?”
“They think Home Run is a bad guy.” Flashfire drinks more of his beer. “The name’s got a ring to it, I’ll give you that. But that’s the name of someone they’re scared of.”
Names come and go for me. Water flowing over a gaping wound, meaningless without something to knit the damn thing closed. Home Run feels like knitting. None of the names the Heroic Underground tried to give me have stuck, but a name the media and FIS gave me just might. “What if I make it a name that people are happy to hear?”
“Your first impression’s gone.” Flashfire takes another swig and then shrugs. “But man, it’s your name. I’d be happy for you to have one at all besides Gabe or maskhole.”
Remise grins. “I’ve always been fond of maskhole.”
We drink with steady pace and chat for a while but after a bit Remise retires, leaving Flashfire and I alone after a bit. After a second we fall into companionable silence.
“Kinda want another beer.” I stand up.
“You’re gonna get fat,” Flashfire replies.
“Pot meet kettle. You want one?” I ask.
“Nah. Got a lot on my mind.”
I pause for a minute at the door and then return to his side. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing, really. Just this girl and Pandahead. Did it strike you as weird the set up for tonight?”
Flashfire finishes his beer in one big gulp and tosses the bottle into the yard. After a second he goes out and picks it up. “The guy was beating them in the truck. I saw the blood stains. He had like… what… a dozen girls? For three gangs and an ex-super. That’s not a lot, you know?”
“Yeah, that does seem weird.” I take his bottle for him and put them in Epione’s recyclables. “FIS was there, too. Maybe it was a sting?”
“You mean Pandahead working with FIS?”
“Yeah, I could see it.” Flashfire sits down. “Back when I served, they always did shit like that. Fishy shit. Wanted to negotiate with guys torturing my brothers and sisters because those guys could get them bigger guys that OPI or the UWC wanted bad.”
I snap to attention. It’s really rare for Flashfire to talk about his time in the military. He served absolute minimum as far as I know.
Really rare. Flashfire shakes his head and I know that’s all I’ll get out of the story.
“You sure you don’t want another?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “The name. Be careful, man. Names are important, you know?”
There’s not much for me to say to that, so I fall silent and sit next to him, and we watch the moon travel slowly amid the stars.